Carmeta Albarus is a forensic social worker specializing in “mitigation” work for criminal defendants facing capital punishment. That means she spends her days delving into the pasts of people accused of terrible crimes in the hope of discovering evidence that might spare them — or mitigate — the death penalty.
She also happens to be of Jamaican heritage, and in 2003 she received a call from attorneys representing Lee Boyd Malvo, a teenage Jamaican accused of participating in the high-profile sniper shootings the previous October that left 10 dead and three wounded over 23 days in the D.C. area. Malvo’s attorneys wanted her help because prosecutors in Virginia were seeking the death penalty in the teenager’s looming trial. The lawyers were struggling to mount a defense because Malvo refused to cooperate. He had apparently been indoctrinated and brainwashed by his accomplice, John Allen Muhammad, then 42. They hoped that Albarus, with her expertise and personal history, could penetrate Malvo’s shell.
Over the next few years, Albarus did just that, not only breaking barriers but also helping Malvo emerge from Muhammad’s control — a journey she describes in her book “The Making of Lee Boyd Malvo.” It is unusual for a member of a defense team to publish such a work, but Albarus obtained Malvo’s permission and writes that she was interested because “the journey that led Malvo to this place is one that begs for understanding.”
Despite the access and fascinating subject matter, the book is no page-turner, perhaps because it is clearly geared toward an academic audience (e.g., she uses the term “cognitive reframing”). It also reveals few new details about Malvo beyond those that emerged during several lengthy trials of the teenager and Muhammad. Malvo, now a 27-year-old inmate in a Virginia maximum-security prison, was convicted and sentenced to life behind bars. Muhammad, convicted in trials in Virginia and Maryland, was executed in 2009.
Even so, “The Making of Lee Boyd Malvo” can be illuminating, especially when Albarus describes what it was like to pierce her client’s shield and help wrest his psyche from Muhammad, a manipulative, larger-than-life figure whom Malvo called Dad.
In Albarus’s telling, Malvo was the child of struggling parents who eventually split up. He then endured a tumultuous relationship with his mother, who abandoned him countless times and beat him. Malvo yearned to live with his loving father, but his hopes were dashed when his dad refused the entreaties. Living alone in a hut on the island of Antigua, 15-year-old Malvo finally found the parental figure he longed for: Muhammad, a former U.S. soldier running an illicit business selling fake identifications while trying to prevent his children from being claimed by their mother in the United States.
Malvo joined Muhammad on a trip to the United States, and they were soon committing deadly crimes across the country. The motive? Muhammad told Malvo that he was hoping to exact a $10 million ransom to “train and school black children” and to “have their own little black colony, where they could prepare a new generation of black minds,” Albarus writes. After learning of Muhammad’s plans, Malvo “figured that at this point there was really nothing to live for” and was so distraught that he played Russian roulette in the hope of killing himself.
In the midst of their deadly spree — they shot unsuspecting people from the trunk of Muhammad’s blue Chevy Caprice — the pair was captured on Oct. 24, 2002. Malvo blamed himself for their arrest: He had fallen asleep while on guard duty.
Within a few months of the arrest, Albarus writes, she met Malvo and began “speaking in Jamaican patois” to try to make him feel comfortable. She was greeted by a youth whose “face was transformed and his eyes became like slits as he launched into a monologue about Jim Crow laws and the oppression of black people worldwide.” Albarus persisted, trying to get a better sense of Malvo’s character and psyche. Soon, she became his confidante and was permitted access to the teen’s complex and confusing world, which drew on the books “The Art of War” and “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff,” as well as the sci-fi movie “The Matrix,” violent video games and Muhammad’s fanatical rantings.
A key moment in Malvo’s transformation came when Albarus engineered a meeting between him and a former Jamaican teacher. After the teacher began crying and begging Malvo to cooperate with his lawyers, Albarus saw a major breakthrough. “Her raw emotions were having an effect on him,” she writes. “After what seemed like an eternity, he reached out to her and said, ‘Please don’t cry anymore, Miss Maxwell. I promise you that I will cooperate. I will tell them what happened.’ ”
One of the more interesting aspects of the book is its lengthy excerpts from Malvo’s writings, poetry and artwork, which reveal an introspective youth trying to make sense of his crimes. In a journal entry, Malvo explained what it was like to testify against his former mentor during a 2006 trial in Montgomery County. “He was standing but a few feet from me. I was expecting myself to feel something and I did — disgust, anger — this man who once consumed my entire field of vision. He was just a man — not the hero I once worshipped.” And in a poem, Malvo wrote that he was “a victim of my own circumstance/Undone by the doings of these two hands.”
In the end, Albarus was partially successful. Though a jury rejected an insanity defense and convicted the sniper, he was spared the death penalty. Albarus also helped Malvo separate himself from Muhammad and begin a journey of self-discovery — though one that will forever be limited by the confines of his prison cell.
THE MAKING OF LEE BOYD MALVO
The D.C. Sniper
By Carmeta Albarus
Columbia Univ. 257 pp. $26.95