Malvo's grades suggest a boy with potential

Defendant in sniper trial earned A's, B's in school

December 08, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

CHESAPEAKE, Va. - The report card held such promise.

Lee Boyd Malvo spent only a few months in a United States high school, but he seemed to quickly master his courses. One transcript, entered into evidence at the sniper suspect's capital murder trial last week, shows he was earning almost straight A's. And interviews with his teachers show he was an intelligent boy with no apparent problems.

After two months at Cypress Lake High School on the Gulf Coast of Florida, the Jamaica-born Malvo had A+'s in honors American history and environmental science, A's in American government and basketball and a B+ in honors English. He returned his library books on time. He had no disciplinary record.

"This kid was quiet and wasn't a troublemaker and did his work and seemed to get along with the other kids around him," said teacher Stephen Solak. In his environmental science class, Malvo had an average of 105, an A+. "He was a bright kid. His grades were all good, and he was doing his work."

One of the central mysteries in the sniper shootings - besides the still murky issue of motive - is how Malvo, a smart teen-ager with a promising future, could grow fiercely loyal to John Allen Muhammad and help him carry out a string of killings, apparently with little or no protest.

But the evidence introduced at Malvo's trial - from his school records to his confessions to police to his disturbing jailhouse drawings that threaten more violence - documents the change without explaining why Malvo so quickly was in Muhammad's thrall.

The high school records from Florida document Malvo's enrollment Aug. 13, 2001, to his withdrawal Oct. 16 that year. He then left school and secretly traveled to Bellingham, Wash., to meet Muhammad. He was enrolled briefly in high school there and was placed in top classes - among them advanced-placement biology and precalculus.

Only one grade was on his Bellingham transcript from the fall of 2001 - an A in citizenship. One year later he and Muhammad would be gunning down citizens at random, making themselves into what prosecutors call a "killing team."

Malvo, who is 18 and would have graduated last spring if he had stayed in school, was living with his mother when he attended Cypress Lake High School in Fort Myers, Fla. They had emigrated from Jamaica to Antigua and, finally, to the United States, where his mother wanted to build a better life for them.

Defense attorneys hope the school transcript will show that during the time Malvo spent with his mother and away from Muhammad, he was a normal child. It was the influence of Muhammad, attorneys intend to prove, that turned a smart but needy youth into an angry killer.

"The defense has already gone a long way toward showing that in the bulk of Malvo's short life he was a pleasant courteous kid," said Steven D. Benjamin, a Richmond attorney and president-elect of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "His rage is a new thing."

That rage was amply demonstrated in other evidence introduced recently - tapes of Malvo's confessions to detectives and a series of more than 100 hate-filled drawings Malvo made in jail this year. On the confession tapes, recorded in November last year, Malvo speaks about the shootings with arrogance and bravado.

Yet the twin sides of the teen-ager are also apparent. At one point, after saying that he always intended to kill his victims, never just wound them, he politely says "thank you" to a detective who brings him a glass of water. In another interview, he says the presence of police did not deter him from his mission.

"We shot with police there. You don't mean nothing," he says. "We will shoot with you there. We will shoot with you not there. We will shoot with soldiers there."

In the months after his arrest and interrogation, he would spend hours drawing and writing in a notebook in his jail cell. The drawings heap praise on notorious figures such as Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden while calling President Bush the "real terrorist" and threatening continued violence on America.

"These are not normal drawings of a normal teen-ager. It's almost like he's fallen apart, like his mind had collapsed," said Alan Entin, a Richmond psychologist who has studied drawings and visual representations for more than 30 years. "It makes the point to me of how disturbed this kid is. It makes a much better case that this kid doesn't know right from wrong."

It's unusual for defense attorneys to give jurors information that their client is filled with rage and lacking in remorse. In Muhammad's trial last month, for instance, his lawyers successfully objected to prosecutors bringing into court a witness who was to testify that Muhammad said America "got what it deserved" on Sept. 11, 2001.

But Malvo's attorneys figure they have little to lose and much to gain.

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