John Allen Muhammad's attorneys have asked Prince William County prosecutors to clarify the capital murder charges against the sniper suspect, requesting information about whether prosecutors believe Muhammad pulled the trigger in a shooting outside Manassas.
In a series of legal papers filed in Prince William County Circuit Court, Muhammad's defense team asked a judge to order the state to better define the indictment. A standard part of most criminal proceedings, the attorneys' request specifically asked for more information about Muhammad's role in the Oct. 9 slaying of Dean H. Meyers.
Whether Muhammad fired the shot that killed Meyers, 53, will be a central legal issue at his October trial, as lawyers prepare to debate Virginia's so-called "triggerman rule." Prosecutors believe that Virginia case law allows them to pursue a death sentence against Muhammad regardless of whether he or his alleged co-conspirator, Lee Boyd Malvo, pulled the trigger. Defense attorneys haven't laid out their theories, but they have said they believe that prosecutors are wrong and that under Virginia law only the person who pulls the trigger is eligible for the death penalty.
Yesterday, Malvo's defense team issued a statement criticizing "leaks" from law enforcement officials, after a story in Sunday's Washington Post provided details about Malvo's lengthy interviews with police. Malvo gave graphic descriptions of the shootings and claimed to have pulled the trigger in some of them, according to law enforcement documents summarizing the interviews.
The leak "makes clear that the individuals involved view this trial as a game that must be won at all costs, that they have lost any sense of justice and fairness," Malvo's attorneys, Michael S. Arif and Craig S. Cooley, wrote, adding that The Post allowed itself to be manipulated. "The leak exhibits the intention to try this case in the media, to circumvent a fair trial, and to trample on the Constitution." They said they believe the information was leaked to influence a hearing at which they hope to persuade a judge to keep the statements out of Malvo's trial.
Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., who is heading Malvo's prosecution, said it was "outrageous for them to make that broadsided attack on law enforcement." He said the "notion that there is some conscious law enforcement conspiracy to poison the jury pool, that's nonsense."
Horan said he was certain the leaked information did not come from Fairfax police, who conducted the Malvo interrogation Nov. 7 with the FBI. But he added: "No one should be doing it [leaking information]. . . . I hate to see an excellent law enforcement effort get tainted because one person decided to leak that kind of information."
Muhammad's attorneys, meanwhile, are trying to get to the heart of his case -- who fired the fatal shot. "The specific information regarding the identity of the actual shooter is crucial to the ability of the accused to prepare his defense and respond to the Commonwealth allegations," Peter D. Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro wrote. The attorneys also asked prosecutors to say whether they are unsure who pulled the trigger. "By use of the word triggerman, the Commonwealth should state, with particularity, whether or not the Commonwealth alleges that the accused was the person who actually used and fired the weapon which caused Mr. Meyers's death."
So far, no witnesses have said they saw either Muhammad, 42, or Malvo, 18, shoot any of the victims in the 13 sniper shootings -- 10 of them fatal -- in the Washington area in October. Muhammad is charged with capital murder in Meyers's slaying, and Malvo faces identical charges in Fairfax in the Oct. 14 shooting of Linda Franklin, 47, who was killed outside a Home Depot in Seven Corners.
Both are charged under two provisions of Virginia's death penalty law. One makes it a capital crime to kill more than one person in a three-year period. The other is the state's new anti-terrorism provision, which makes a killing eligible for capital punishment if it is intended to intimidate the public or influence the government.
Greenspun and Shapiro asked that prosecutors further define the allegations related to the terrorism law, hoping for more information about who was terrorized and the jurisdictions that were supposedly targeted. The defense attorneys also want to know who gave the orders to carry out the alleged acts.
Prosecutors believe that the anti-terrorism law is worded in a way that allows a capital conviction without having to prove who was the triggerman.
Authorities allege that Muhammad and Malvo carried out the shootings to coerce a payment of $10 million from the government. Malvo told investigators that their plan was to scare the community and that he believed he was going to be paid two days after the final shooting on Oct. 22, according to law enforcement documents.
On Friday, Greenspun and Shapiro are scheduled to return to court to set a pretrial schedule and to argue motions before Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. According to an 87-page document filed Friday, the defense team plans to present more evidence in its quest to hire an expert who would dig through Muhammad's social history. Millette said at a hearing last month that he needed more information before appointing such an expert.