Muhammad cites the Gospel, Plato

Sniper professes innocence, says he came to Md. seeking his kids


ROCKVILLE -- Convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad told a jury yesterday that he came to the Washington area on a desperate search for his children, and that he was shocked when he and teenager Lee Boyd Malvo, whom he called "my son," were yanked from their car by authorities and accused of being the snipers who laid siege to the region in 2002.

Muhammad, 45, spoke about losing his children and choosing to fight the six murder charges for which he is on trial in Montgomery County, citing Plato, the Constitution and the Gospel of John. He is representing himself, having fired his public defenders after they said he was mentally unfit to stand trial. Three standby lawyers are helping him.

"I came to this area looking for my children," he said, explaining that the three had been taken from him by a court not long after his son, John Jr., had nearly drowned twice while swimming in the Caribbean.

Muhammad had kidnapped the children and taken them to Antigua, but after he returned to the Bellingham, Wash., area and they were discovered, a court on Aug. 31, 2001, turned them over to his ex-wife. She was allowed to relocate without telling Muhammad where they went.

"Aug. 31 was my Sept. 11," he said.

Muhammad's 17-minute opening statement, delivered in a soft voice from behind the defense table for security reasons, provided the high drama yesterday. It illustrated the unusual nature of the proceedings - a convicted murderer who allegedly terrorized millions in the Washington area holding court in the county that saw the most shootings.

His remarks seemed to be an effort to portray himself to the jury chosen earlier in the day as a loving and distraught father, a former soldier, a human being.

He did not mention the .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle that police said was found in his car when he was arrested, or DNA and fingerprints tied to sniper shootings, all of which Deputy State's Attorney Katherine Winfree had just linked to him during her opening statement.

"For 22 deadly days in 2002, this man, John Allen Muhammad, and Lee Boyd Malvo, his 17-year- old disciple and accomplice, struck fear in the heart of our community," Winfree said.

Muhammad, already on Virginia's death row for a sniper shooting, is being tried here for the six fatal shootings in Montgomery County that were part of the 2002 rampage.

He is charged in the killings of James D. Martin, 55; James L. "Sonny" Buchanan, 39; Premkumar A. Walekar, 54; Maria Sarah Ramos, 34; Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25; and Conrad E. Johnson, 35.

Malvo, now 21, is serving life terms for two fatal sniper shootings in Virginia. He might testify in the next few weeks against the man he said was his Svengali.

Muhammad, who briefly served as his own attorney in Virginia, implicated himself in that 2003 trial, telling a jury that he knew what happened at the fatal shooting of Dean H. Meyers, 53, in Prince William County because he was there.

Muhammad's ex-wife, Mildred, who was living in Clinton, testified then that she was terrified of him.

Yesterday, Muhammad offered an alternative explanation for why he and Malvo were driving around the Washington area.

Muhammad said that after losing custody of his children, he failed to locate his children at up to six addresses, then came to the Washington region with Malvo and a plan to cruise the area to look for them.

"We are going to circle the area and circle the area and see if we can find them," he said.

Wearing his standby lawyers' dark suit and gold tie, Muhammad asked jurors to be fair and listen to the evidence, which he said would include "quantum physics" and show that he and Malvo are innocent. He also explained why he calls Malvo his son.

Muhammad said he had saved John Jr. from drowning at a Caribbean beach on May 1, 2000, and that Malvo saved his son from drowning there exactly a year later. Malvo's heroism prompted his children to want to make Malvo "their big brother," he said.

"Ever since then, I swore to Lee, Lee Boyd Malvo, and my children, I would protect him the same way I would protect them," he said.

Eyebrows furrowed in the nearly filled courtroom as he spoke. Relatives of victims sat somberly. For some, such as Victoria Snider, sister of "Sonny" Buchanan, it is the third sniper trial they will attend.

Asked if it was hard, Snider replied, "It is, but this time, this is it. I hope this is it."

Prosecutors are to begin presenting evidence and witnesses today.

Earlier, Winfree spoke at length about the six sniper killings and placed them in the context of the 13 shootings, 10 of them fatal, in the Washington area.

She stood in front of a chart of photos of the victims as she snapped together the black Bushmaster rifle that had been used to kill 10 people as they pumped gas, loaded cars or walked hand-in-hand with their spouses.

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