Witness links Malvo profile, brainwashing

`People can kill when they are under this kind of mindset,' cult expert says

December 06, 2003|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

CHESAPEAKE, Va. - Sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo's psychological profile fits that of people who are vulnerable to being brainwashed and molded by dominant figures, a cult expert testified yesterday at the teen-ager's capital murder trial.

Malvo's instability and insecurity as an adolescent could have become tools of control for a strong-minded person such as John Allen Muhammad, psychologist Paul R. Martin testified for the defense.

That kind of control can be so strong that a follower would kill as a result, said Martin, who heads a retreat in Ohio specializing in treatment of people suffering from cult control and abusive relationships.

"People can kill when they are under this kind of mindset," Martin told jurors in the 16th day of the trial. Malvo is accused of teaming with Muhammad on last fall's shooting rampage that left 10 people dead and terrified millions around the nation's capital.

Also yesterday, Fairfax County Circuit Judge Jane Marum Roush denied a defense request to bring Muhammad into the courtroom to demonstrate to jurors how much larger he is than Malvo.

The judge said it would be too dangerous to bring Muhammad to Chesapeake from the jail in Northern Virginia.

"It's just a danger moving people around the state and bringing in him here for a size comparison, which is all it's going to be," Roush said, according to a transcript of the bench conference in which she made the ruling. "If you want to fly him down, the plane could crash. If they drive him, then the car could crash. I just think it's a danger to the deputies to be transporting him down here."

Although prosecutors had offered to stipulate to Muhammad's size, Malvo's attorneys had said this week that jurors would have a better understanding of the disparity if they saw him next to Malvo.

Authorities have said that Muhammad is 6 foot 1 and weighs 179 pounds, while Malvo is 5 foot 7 and 150 pounds.

Malvo was brought into the courtroom several times during Muhammad's trial in October to be identified by witnesses to shootings. At the time, Malvo's lawyers said the experience was a traumatic one for their client because he has spent months trying to break free of Muhamamd's influence.

Psychologist Martin's testimony was the groundwork for a series of mental health experts who will be called to the witness stand next week in an effort by the defense to try to convince jurors that Malvo was insane - and not guilty - when he was involved in the attacks.

The defense began with having Martin explain how people can be coerced into changing their systems of beliefs and behavior.

On Monday, psychologist Dewey Cornell will be called to testify that, based on his 300 hours of examinations, he believes that Malvo was "indoctrinated" by Muhammad, 42. The former Army soldier was convicted last month for his role in the attacks; the jury recommended he be sentenced to death.

Cornell's testimony will be followed by other defense experts who will say that Malvo's brainwashing was so severe that it overwhelmed his sense of right and wrong. The defense is expected to rest its case at midweek.

Legal definition

A defendant who does not know right from wrong meets the legal definition of insanity in Virginia.

If the jury finds the 18-year-old Malvo insane, he will automatically be spared from the possibility of a death sentence and will be sent to a Virginia mental hospital.

However, he would still face more capital charges in Virginia, and murder charges elsewhere.

Whether Malvo will testify in his defense is an issue that the defense is expected to decide early next week.

In confession tapes aired in the trial, Malvo referred to Muhammad as his father. The two met in 2000.

Over continued prosecution objections that limited the breadth of his testimony, Martin was allowed to lay some groundwork about what he termed "thought reform" and "coercive persuasion."

Under questioning by defense lawyer Thomas B. Walsh, Martin described it as "some sort of a teaching, or dogma," saying that though the details of the approach include attacking an old belief system followed by "out with the old and in the new."

He said people who are insecure and looking for stability tend to be more vulnerable.

Last week, defense witnesses from Malvo's native Jamaica and from Antigua, where he lived briefly, described him in part as chronically uprooted by a mother who often then left him with friends and relatives for months at a time.

Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan objected to nearly all of the questioning, contending that brainwashing is a "red herring" and that the defense's goal was to confuse the difference between brainwashing and insanity.

The defense maintains that Malvo's brainwashing was a "dissociative disorder, not otherwise specified," in the psychiatric diagnostic manual - a diagnosis Horan called "the ultimate refuge for mental health scoundrels."

Malvo was 17 when he was charged with the fatal shooting Oct. 14 last year of FBI analyst Linda Franklin, who was felled in a Home Depot parking lot near Falls Church, Va., by a bullet fired from about 160 feet away.

Change of venue

The trial was moved to Chesapeake to find jurors who were unaffected by the sniper attacks.

One count of capital murder charges Malvo with committing multiple killings and another, under Virginia's untested anti-terrorism law, accuses him of killing in a scheme to extort $10 million from the government to end the shootings.

Malvo and Muhammad were arrested Oct. 24 last year in a rest area near Frederick in a blue Chevrolet Caprice with what prosecutors say was a sniper's lair in the back and a hole cut above the license plate for a rifle barrel. The rifle in the car, a Bushmaster, has been linked to more than a dozen shootings in the Washington area and around the country.

Sun staff writer Stephen Kiehl contributed to this article.

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