City Paper is not for tourists
This is the sniper trial?” a woman behind me gasped, twisting for a better view of the thin man in a baggy suit at the defense table.
Most of the hundreds of potential jurors who squeezed onto benches, elbow-to-elbow, clutching yellow questionnaires, had seen the stories about jury selection starting Monday. Yet it was still unnerving to hear the judge read out the charges against John Allen Muhammad, to see him sitting there, back in Montgomery County.
I’d never been a juror. When my summons arrived months earlier, I was thinking traffic court, maybe armed robbery.
I purposefully avoided coverage of his Virginia trial because I had no desire to revisit those 22 days of terror—crouching beside my car for gas at 3 a.m., choking on an explanation for why kindergarten soccer was canceled again.
Now Judge James Ryan was explaining Muhammad’s constitutional right to defend himself and asking whether we could give him a fair trial.
The guy to my right had no doubts: Problem with the defendant being black? Yes. Being Muslim? Yes. Already formed an opinion? Yes.
The woman to my left, who identified herself as an attorney, answered that she had no preconceived notion of guilt or innocence. Noble. But believable?
I had an opinion. The killing stopped after Muhammad was arrested with a rifle that matched rounds taken from those who had been shot. At least I’d only miss a day of work—I was sure to be struck for answering honestly.
And yet I kept making the cut. At voir dire, Judge James Ryan told me most potential jurors had responded the same way. What was important, he said, was the ability to set that aside and decide the case based solely on the evidence presented in court. I told him I felt I could, that it’s part of my job as a reporter to listen to all sorts of stories from all sorts of people and come up with the best approximation of the truth I can given the information available at the time.
That was sure to sink me. Nobody would want a reporter on this jury, with satellite trucks already parked outside. But neither the prosecution nor the defense objected. And when my number was drawn from a plastic container that Thursday to determine who would fill the jury box, I was not asked to leave.
“I guess we’re the lucky ones,” a fellow juror said somberly as we stood to be sworn. No time to reconsider. Opening arguments begin after lunch.
I couldn’t eat and wandered instead past the steel frames of new Rockville condos. Are you really going to do this? Take a deep breath and try to forget the fear. Maybe the story will end differently this time. Maybe all those people didn’t really die.
But, of course, they did. And this time their deaths were laid out before us, staring back from the autopsy table with the intimacy of mismatched buttons on a bloodied shirt.
Charged with anything, especially six counts of murder, you’d be wise to leave your defense to professionals. From the moment he rose in his own defense, Muhammad was the prosecution’s best witness, without ever putting himself on the stand.
It wasn’t that he failed to find seams in the case. No apparent gunshot residue was found around the customized muzzle hole from which five of the six shots allegedly came. And there were no apparent strike marks inside the trunk from the stolen Bushmaster’s cartridge ejector.
It wasn’t that he lost his temper. He did on occasion. So did prosecutors. But at no time in four weeks of arguing his own case did Muhammad appear criminally insane enough to be capable of such brutality.
On our only trip outside court, we filed into elevators with police escorts and descended to the underground parking garage to inspect Muhammad’s blue Caprice.
He stood to the side with the rest of the court as we circled the car, peering through tinted windows at the folding back seat and into the empty trunk with hands behind our backs as if we were in a museum.
No one spoke. How many times did I pass that former police cruiser without noticing because I was too busy looking for white panel trucks?
Police with rifles stood at the closed grate of the garage, blocking any escape for Muhammad. Yet he showed no sign of disquiet. I watched him through the open back doors and found it difficult to put him in that trunk, killing people who were mowing the lawn or reading a book or putting Halloween decorations in a van.
Back in the courtroom, Muhammad brought a smirking charm to the proceedings. Standing tall in soft suits, Afro shaved, smilingly begging the court’s indulgence, sharing a joke with attorneys, thoughtfully resting his chin on long, folded fingers. His standby lawyers did their best to steer his argument toward creating reasonable doubt but were ultimately helpless to contain Muhammad’s showboating.
His familiarity with the murder weapon led him to challenge Lee Boyd Malvo’s account of how the boy broke the rifle down and stashed it in a black duffle bag. Muhammad stood before us as an innocent man frustrated by his inability to show us how the rifle found hidden inside the back seat of his car fit fully assembled into the bag left at Conrad Johnson’s murder. Was impeaching Malvo’s testimony worth connecting himself more directly with the crime?
Muhammad asked nearly everyone on the stand if he had personal knowledge of who committed these crimes. None did. It was a centerpiece of his cross-examination, the absence of a single eyewitness or any surveillance footage placing him at the crime scenes. But it was a challenge conspicuously absent from his questioning of Malvo, his spotter in the front seat, the young man who plotted their escape on a stolen laptop and is the only other person who knows what went on behind those tinted windows.
Then there was the digital recording of Muhammad threatening more violence. Malvo says they used the machine to prerecord most telephone contact with authorities so no call would be long enough to trace. Muhammad’s version was that they used the machine to better remember directions to vegetarian restaurants. The only sound we heard was the voice of the accused demanding $10 million and that of his accomplice warning of more body bags.
Muhammad generally appeared beyond distraction. And yet even he looked out into the audience once when stifled sobs from one victim’s family grew louder. Their misery made me think of how many others came so close to sharing that grief: FDA employees in the parking lot the morning Sonny Buchanan was killed; the five pregnant women Malvo says he couldn’t bring himself to shoot as he lay in a cemetery, watching them in the doors of a fast-food restaurant; Howard University students on campus Oct. 3 saved by the mass of potential witnesses; Baltimore schoolchildren who never rode buses packed with ball-bearing bombs; Patrolman James Snyder, who approached the Caprice in Malvo’s sights and would have fallen had he reached for his weapon.
Judge Ryan said Muhammad’s presumption of innocence extended to the close of testimony. But it grew harder to follow Muhammad’s account of what had really happened: that he and Malvo had just been driving around looking for his children when they’d already scouted his ex-wife’s town house. In a car with the pen imprint “Call me God” over the instructions for cruise control.
The secret guilt of creeping judgment sent me scrambling for some standard of objectivity, back to Muhammad’s opening about how every story has two sides, how he woke up that morning knowing he needed to come to court and fight for his right to survive, how the enemies of Jesus plotted to manipulate his words to convict him of a crime he didn’t do, how quantum physics would help prove his innocence.
As jurors, we knew nothing about the criticism surrounding the trial. Admonished to avoid all media coverage of the proceedings, I heard none of the charges of political opportunism or wasted resources, nothing of former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s role in all of this or how standby counsel had discounted our ability to reach a fair verdict because of Muhammad’s trouble calling witnesses.
My self-censorship grew from skipping the Metro section to leaving the paper in its wrapper. Can’t read about it. Can’t talk about it. Can’t think about anything else.
The simple “How was your day?” with my wife now brought just a nervous laugh. And from me, nothing more. Her cryptic consolation: “I read the paper.”
Harder still not to speak with your fellow jurors. We shared mothers-in-law and samurai sudoku, wedding plans and moving plans and aches and pains, but never thoughts about the monstrous elephant at sidebar about whom no one must speak.
The Friday surprise that evidence was over brought anxiety to the jury room. Will the judge release our names? Can we get out through the basement?
Finally free to discuss the violence that brought us together, some were ready to vote the moment the door closed. Others suggested a more thorough review of the boxes of evidence and poster boards now stacked around us. We agreed to work through the case count by count, listing what we heard and didn’t hear about each shooting, what Muhammad had to say about it, and what questions remained. In a little over four hours we had six votes and six unanimous verdicts of guilt.
Sure, if we had voted before the trial even started, things would have turned out exactly the same way. And Muhammad had already been sentenced to death in Virginia. I wondered myself about the value of a Maryland trial, but afterward I felt it was worth it—for the enormity of the crime, the satisfaction its resolution brought victims’ families, and the opportunity for Malvo to set the record straight while confronting his twisted mentor and ultimately revealing other shootings in other states.
Everyone who lived through that October has their own reminders of the panic, whether it’s a child who still weaves through the parking lot of the Seven Corners Home Depot or a mother who looks over her shoulders outside the Shoppers Food Warehouse at Georgia and Randolph.
Standing in judgment has made those echoes sharper. My Home Depot takes me past the Mobil where Premkumar Walekar was killed. Now I slow to look through the break in the hedge row across the street. I check the flowerpots where Pascal Charlot died waiting to cross Georgia on Kalmia. I stopped for gas at the Shell on Connecticut and Knowles, which I hadn’t been to since, and crossed the lot to hang up the vacuum hose as if its lying in the dust somehow shamed the memory of Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Robert Meganck.