Lawyers ask Supreme Court to block sniper's execution

By Maria Glod and Josh White
Wednesday, November 4, 2009; B03

Attorneys for sniper John Allen Muhammad, mastermind of the terrifying 2002 Washington area shooting spree, asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday to halt their client's execution, saying he was paranoid and delusional during his trial.

Muhammad, 48, who teamed up with Lee Boyd Malvo, now 24, in a series of random shootings that left 10 people dead, suffers from mental illness and brain damage caused partly by childhood beatings, defense attorney Jonathan P. Sheldon and others on the defense team wrote.

As he prepared for his 2003 trial, Muhammad was "amnesic of the events surrounding the crimes" and thought he was being framed in an elaborate scheme, the attorneys wrote. He believed that he was a prophet and said Malvo discovered an herbal cure for AIDS. He also said the military had trained him in "urban warfare" at "secret schools." The attorneys said that because of Muhammad's brain damage, he has trouble following a logical line of thought and "lacks sufficient ability to distinguish truth from falsity."

The argument to the Supreme Court contends that attorneys Peter D. Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro were ineffective because they failed to object to Muhammad's demand to represent himself at trial. Had the pair argued that Muhammad's mental problems made him unfit to present his own defense, there is a "reasonable probability" that the judge would have found Muhammad incompetent to stand trial altogether, Sheldon wrote.

"Trial counsel knew that Muhammad had been diagnosed with severe mental illness, and personally observed Muhammad's struggle with severe psychiatric disorders prior to the start of the trial," the attorneys wrote. "Muhammad's trial attorneys had a duty to request a competency evaluation, and their failure to do so was unreasonable and below prevailing professional norms."

Greenspun declined to comment for himself and Shapiro. "Other counsel is handling it, and we can't talk at this time," Greenspun said.

Muhammad is scheduled to die by lethal injection in Virginia's death chamber Nov. 10. Only the high court or Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) can spare him. Muhammad's defense team made an appeal to Kaine on Oct. 22.

Muhammad was convicted and sentenced to death in the slaying of Dean H. Meyers, 53, who was gunned down Oct. 9, 2002, at gas station near Manassas. Muhammad and Malvo crisscrossed the Washington region during three weeks that fall, shooting people who were going about the mundane tasks of daily life. Malvo was convicted in a separate trial and is serving a life sentence.

At the start of his 2003 trial in Virginia Beach, Muhammad shocked spectators and his own attorneys when he demanded to represent himself, saying "I know me."

Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr., then of the Prince William County Circuit Court, told Muhammad that he was making a "tremendous mistake" and urged him to reconsider, according to court records. Greenspun told the judge that the defense team had "strongly, strongly" advised Muhammad against the move, and Shapiro said they told Muhammad that it was "a mistake." The attorneys also told the judge that Muhammad was a "very bright man" who had received and read court papers.

Muhammad delivered a rambling opening statement, saying the prosecution's case was a "guess." But in the two days before he turned the case back over to his attorneys, Muhammad surprised court observers with his polite and inquisitive manner as he questioned a victim, police officers, forensic experts and witnesses to two of the crimes.

Muhammad's legal team already has made -- and lost -- a similar argument in federal appellate court. In arguments in May before a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, Senior Virginia Assistant Attorney General Katherine B. Burnett said Muhammad had made a "very foolish and unwise decision" to represent himself. "But he wasn't incompetent."

Muhammad's request will be forwarded to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the justice designated to receive such applications from the 4th Circuit. Customarily, the application is then referred to the full court for consideration. There is no deadline for action.

Muhammad's attorneys also argue that the Virginia federal court required him to file his appeal more quickly than the one-year time frame they said is the "practice in all other jurisdictions" nationwide. "In one of the largest cases, if not the largest case, in Virginia history, the District Court denied Muhammad half of the time Congress allocated for him to research, investigate, and prepare his habeas claims," they wrote.

In a May 2008 letter to the federal court, Muhammad said he told his attorneys that he did not want to file more appeals. Days later, he sent a second rambling letter saying he had reconsidered. The appeal, he said, would include evidence "of mine innocent and what really happen and what you'll knew and know -- but lied to the American people about -- so all you police and presecuters can stand- down . . . to murdering this innocent black man."

Staff writer Robert Barnes contributed to this report.

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