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The DC Sniper Trial, Part II

If the second week of testimony in the DC Sniper trial proved anything, it was that prosecutors had, relatively speaking, actually exercised some restraint during the first week.

The state first wrapped up the testimony concerning the Ballenger shooting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Ingrid Shaw, the witness mentioned previously, offered the jury the improbable scenario that the Snipermobile sat parked in the same location, across from Ballenger’s shop, for at least three-and-a-half hours before the shooting, after which it promptly pulled away.

Charlene Anderson, a cousin of John Allen Muhammad, then took the stand to deliver some of the trial’s most provocative testimony. Muhammad and Malvo had arrived at her Baton Rouge home last year, Anderson recalled, with a story about being on a covert military assignment. Their mission, her cousin had told her, was to recover stolen C-4 military explosives.

To most people, such stories indicate that Muhammad is either delusional, or he is a liar. It is quite possible, however, that what Muhammad told Anderson was the truth as he knew it. The pair were most likely part of a covert military operation. And as low-level operatives in that campaign, they certainly would not have been informed of their true mission, but would instead have been given a ‘cover’ story. That would be particularly true, needless to say, if their real assignment was to serve as unwitting patsies.

From the stand, Anderson claimed that Muhammad had brought with him an Army duffel bag containing what she described as a military rifle, which he had proudly showed off. Two months earlier, however, Anderson had told an investigator for the defense that she had not seen a gun during her cousin’s visit.

Prosecutors next shifted the focus of the trial back to Maryland, following the alleged trail of the killers. After committing two robbery/shootings in Maryland with a .22-caliber handgun, and then detouring, for no discernible reason, to Alabama and Louisiana – where they committed two robbery/shootings with a high-powered rifle, although the assailant was seen with a handgun – the pair then purportedly ventured back to Maryland, where they began a series of random sniper killings. The state would, eventually, include in their meandering case a couple of crimes other than the Meyers shooting that were actually committed in the state of Virginia. But not quite yet.

First on prosecutors’ to-do list was calling a string of witnesses to recreate for the jury the mass panic that accompanied the deaths of four sniper victims in a single morning, and a fifth before that day was over. Strangely though, prosecutors skipped over the shooting of James “Sonny” Buchanan, the first victim gunned down on October 3, 2002. Buchanan was shot at 7:41 AM, just 31 minutes before Premkumar Walekar was shot, and just 56 minutes before Sarah Ramos was shot. The Buchanan shooting was conspicuous in its absence, considering that prosecutors seemed intent on introducing evidence of as many uncharged murders as possible.

Why then was the Buchanan murder ignored (as well as the murder of James Martin, who was gunned down on October 2, 2002)? Perhaps prosecutors decided it would be best to avoid explaining to the jury how one self-styled sniper team, unfamiliar with the terrain in which they were operating, shot and killed three victims at three separate locations in under an hour — effortlessly moving from crime scene to crime scene, quickly scouting out potential victims, instinctively finding escape routes and avoiding detection.

Witness Andrea Walekar, the daughter of victim Premkumar Walekar, was called to the stand to recall for the jury her frantic efforts to contact her father that tragic morning. She ultimately learned his fate from television reports. Pediatrician Caroline Namrov spoke of her futile, desperate efforts to save the dying man. Police Cpl. Paul Kukucka described racing to the scene, weaving through traffic, only to find the victim beyond help when he arrived.

It all made for dramatic, emotional, gut-wrenching testimony — but none of it was relevant to determining whether John Allen Muhammad had anything to do with the shooting of Premkumar Walekar. None of the witnesses placed Muhammad, his vehicle, or his partner anywhere near the scene. According to the Los Angeles Times, Mary Ripple, the state medical examiner who had performed the autopsy on Walekar, provided the only tenuous link to Muhammad. Ripple informed the jury that “the .223-caliber bullet that killed [Walekar] could only have come from one Bushmaster XM-15 rifle.” If so, then Ms. Ripple is a remarkably skilled medical examiner — one who can not only identify the cause of death as a .223-caliber bullet, but can tell you exactly which firearm that bullet was fired from.

Witness Ralph Sheldon testified that he saw victim Sarah Ramos sitting on a bench at a Maryland shopping center just before he heard a shot ring out. He then saw Ramos slumped over, blood pouring from her head. Officer Cynthia Martin described arriving at the bloody scene. The medical examiner offered a graphic description of the effect that a high-velocity bullet has on the human head. As always, gruesome photos were projected on a screen to shock and repulse the jury. Ramos’ husband delivered the eulogy.

Other witnesses then took the stand to offer accounts of the lives, and the tragic deaths, of victims Lori Lewis-Rivera, shot at 9:58 AM on October 3, 2002, and Pascal Charlot, shot that same evening at 9:15 PM. The names of the witnesses were new, but their testimony was hauntingly familiar.

Washington, D.C. police officer Henry Gallagher claimed from the stand that he had stopped Muhammad in the Snipermobile on that bloody day, just a few hours before the Charlot shooting. Muhammad, who was alone in the vehicle, had run two stop signs. Gallagher let him off with a warning. Four civilian witnesses claimed that they had seen the Snipermobile near shooting scenes. Makeup artist Kerry Turner said she saw the car shortly before Sarah Ramos was shot. An accountant remembered seeing it near where Lewis-Rivera was killed. And Karl Largie and Gail Howard, identified as the manager and owner of a restaurant, saw it just after Charlot was gunned down.

Witness/victim Caroline Seawell was then called to the stand to relive the harrowing experience of being shot in the back without warning on the afternoon of October 4, 2002. “I still have bullet fragments inside me,” she explained to the jury. Another witness placed the Snipermobile at the scene, just minutes after the shooting.

Iran Brown, at 13 (now 14) the only child victim, took the stand to describe being shot in front of his school in Bowie, Maryland. His parents had reportedly tried to prevent the state from calling him as a witness, believing the boy would be further traumatized by the experience. His appearance was required only for the prejudicial effect that a child victim’s emotional testimony would have on the jury. Iran’s aunt, Tanya Brown, who had dropped her nephew off at school that day, recalled driving him to an urgent care center. Physician Martin Eichelberger spoke of treating the boy’s grave wounds.

Baltimore police officer James Snyder testified that he happened upon Muhammad, sleeping in his Snipermobile, at 3:00 AM the morning after the shooting. Snyder was the third officer to tell the jury that he had stopped the Snipermobile during the first week of the shootings. Strangely enough, he was also the third officer to tell the jury that Muhammad, purportedly one-half of an inseparable team, had been alone in the car.

Where had Malvo been at 3:00 in the morning, deprived of transportation and lodging, while his master slept? And where had he been just hours before the Charlot shooting? And where had he been just after the Meyers shooting, as the Snipermobile allegedly fled the scene? According to prosecutors, Malvo had been in the trunk when Muhammad had been stopped by officer Bailey. But according to Bailey’s account, that encounter occurred a half-hour after the Meyers shooting. And according to the state’s case, the Snipermobile was set up to allow a shooter to quickly and surreptitiously position himself partially within the trunk to take a shot. There would have been no reason for Malvo to squirm completely into the trunk. And there was certainly no reason for him to remain there for a half-hour.

Gerald Driscoll, identified as a chiropractor, was called to offer testimony about his sighting of the Snipermobile, and its occupants, near the school where Brown was shot.  Prosecutors seemed to have no shortage of civilian witnesses who recalled seeing the dark blue Caprice lurking near crime scenes, just as they had no shortage of police witnesses who recalled encountering the vehicle, although there was never a single mention of such a car during the media circus that accompanied the killings.

Police Cpl. Charles Nelson told of finding a Tarot card bearing an ominous message about 100 yards from where Brown was shot. A police cadet claimed that he found a discarded ballpoint pen barrel about 25 feet from where that card was found. A bullet casing was found in the same area. Prosecutors promised that evidence would show that Muhammad’s DNA was on the pen barrel and Malvo’s DNA was on the Tarot card. And the shell casing, to no one’s surprise, would be connected to the Bushmaster rifle. If the state’s reconstruction of the crimes is accurate, however, any shell casings would have ejected into a closed trunk. It would have been all but impossible for a shell casing to have been left behind inadvertently. That key piece of evidence, therefore, had to have been left at the scene deliberately.

Nancy Demme, a police captain, took the stand to describe the panic-stricken reaction of suburban parents to the deliberate targeting of a child. Demme had, perhaps significantly, been on the job less than a month when she emerged as a key player in the sniper saga. Her testimony was, by any reasonable standard, inflammatory and irrelevant. But according to the state, Demme’s testimony was necessary to demonstrate that the intent of the crime was to terrorize society — even though the crime that caused the fear that Demme described was not the crime that Muhammad was charged with.

Moving on to the next sniper shooting, medical examiner Deborah Kay provided a description of the massive internal injuries suffered by sniper victim Kenneth Bridges, who was shot in the back on the morning of October 11, 2002. As Kay displayed yet another series of gruesome autopsy photos, defense lawyers raised an objection — one that had been raised and overruled repeatedly. The photos, they argued, “don’t add a thing to the case. The cause of death is indisputable.”

Although the judge was not swayed by that argument, the cause of death was, of course, indisputable, as it was with all of the sniper victims. There was no disagreement that each had been killed by a single bullet fired by an unseen assassin with a high-powered rifle. The only relevant question for the court to address was whether the man who stood accused was that unseen assassin.

And yet, amazingly enough, prosecutors openly declared that the answer to that question was largely irrelevant. It didn’t matter, they argued, who actually pulled the trigger. In fact, the state’s position was that Muhammad fired few, if any, of the fatal shots. Malvo was routinely credited with being the “trigger man.” Prosecutors even openly acknowledged that it was very unlikely that Muhammad shot the one victim that they charged him with shooting.

But Malvo, according to the state of Virginia’s crack prosecution team, was completely under the control of Muhammad, who was, they said, a “mind controller.” Malvo, they argued, was “brainwashed.” He was little more than a tool, an “instrument of death and destruction,” much like the Snipermobile and the Bushmaster rifle.

That was, you see, a perfectly reasonable scenario for distinguished prosecutors to sell to a jury, and for the mainstream media to report without a hint of skepticism. But let someone suggest an only slightly different scenario, such as that both Malvo and Muhammad were, and still are, the “brainwashed” tools of unseen actors, and let the scoffing and the eye rolling begin. Clearly, only a ‘conspiracy theorist’ would suggest something so ludicrous.

The state of Virginia, by the way, while still portraying Malvo as the mindless puppet of his master, Muhammad, began selecting a jury that it hopes will convict the teenager of first-degree murder and sentence him to death. To do so, of course, the state will have to employ a different strategy entirely — one that explicitly repudiates the very arguments that were used to justify Muhammad’s conviction. But here, yet again, we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves.

Christine Goodwin and Patricia Bradshaw both took the stand to insist that they saw the Snipermobile in the vicinity of the scene of the Bridges shooting. “Everything about that car,” Goodwin told the jury, “was wrong.” So wrong, she said, that her “first instinct” was to call the police – although she didn’t. She later heard that a man had been killed at the very gas station where she claims that she saw the Snipermobile. She waited almost two weeks to report the sighting.

Prosecutors next moved on to the shooting of Linda Franklin. William Franklin, who was with his wife when she was killed on October 11, 2002, provided both eyewitness testimony and a eulogy. A tape of his anguished 911 call was played for the jury. It was just one of many 911 tapes that prosecutors played throughout the trial, often leaving the jurors visibly shaken. Needless to say, none of those harrowing tapes provided any insight into who committed the murders that caused such anguish. The jury also viewed, along with the bereaved widower, a crime scene photo that revealed, in grisly detail, that the right side of Linda Franklin’s face had been blown away.

Yet another law enforcement officer took the stand, this time to claim that she had seen Malvo driving the Snipermobile not long after the shooting, about ten miles from the scene. The officer had just left a restaurant, where she had, as she acknowledged, slammed down a few beers.

Linda Franklin, it must be noted, was a ‘counter-terrorism’ expert with the FBI. Her job involved keeping tabs on warnings of possible terrorist threats — such as all those specific warnings that came in prior to September 11, 2001. Franklin was probably not, in other words, a randomly selected target.

One witness not called by the state was Matthew Dowdy, who had reported to police that he saw Franklin’s killer fire a single shot with an AK-47 rifle and then drive off in a light-colored van. A few days later, Dowdy was arrested and charged with making false and deliberately misleading statements. Those allegedly false and misleading statements, of course, pointed to a killer other than Muhammad or Malvo. It was never explained why Dowdy would deliberately try to derail a high profile, and high stakes, investigation. He quickly became a forgotten footnote to the sniper case.

Next to take the stand was Monsignor William Sullivan, who described receiving the bizarre telephone call on October 18, 2002 that allegedly led police directly to the Montgomery, Alabama shooting scene (except that Sullivan initially thought the call was a hoax, which is why he didn’t report it to authorities, and which leaves open the question of why the investigation suddenly shifted to Alabama, and from there to Muhammad and Malvo). From the stand, Sullivan was not able to identify who he had spoken to on the phone that day.

The focus of the trial next shifted to the shooting of victim Jeffrey Hopper in the parking lot of a Ponderosa steakhouse restaurant. Hopper took the stand to provide a first-person account of being shot with a high-powered rifle. Prosecutors then presented a convoluted body of evidence that purportedly linked Muhammad to the crime.

A four-page note, enclosed in a plastic baggie, was found tacked to a tree near the scene. That note, demanding that $10 million be deposited into a credit card account, was an important element of the state’s case, since it allegedly showed that Muhammad was attempting to extort money from the government, thus qualifying him as a ‘terrorist.’ Mark James, with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, read the note aloud to the jury.

There was nothing on the note itself to link it to Muhammad or Malvo. No fingerprints, no fibers, no hairs. But on the baggie, incredibly enough, investigators recovered Malvo’s DNA. It’s a good thing then that the pair decided to slip the note into the baggie. They also apparently decided to deliberately leave behind another shell casing. And, according to deputy James Sizemore, a bag of Cinna-raisins that yielded Malvo’s fingerprints.

According to the testimony of Sheriff’s deputy Drew Darby, the paper and the stickers that had been used to create the note, and the baggie that held the note, were only sold at the Ashland Big Lots store, which was just two miles from the Ponderosa steakhouse. A short, grainy video clip from a Big Lots‘ surveillance camera was aired. Prosecutors argued, though apparently not convincingly, that Muhammad’s image was captured on that tape.

Meanwhile, Jill Lynn Farell, the owner of the credit card referenced in the note, testified that the card had been stolen from her in March 2002 while she was driving a Greyhound bus in the state of Arizona. It is unclear exactly how her testimony tied the stolen credit card to Muhammad.

That about wrapped up the second week of the DC Sniper trial. The L.A. Times, in summing up the testimony to that point, observed that prosecutors had “designed a strategy both understated and graphic. In voices etched with heartbreak, loved ones recall the dead. Old snapshots of the victims are shown, brimming with life, then contrasted with grisly crime scene and morgue photos.”

While the state’s presentation had certainly been graphic, the only thing that had been “understated” had been the evidence tying the defendant, John Allen Muhammad, to the string of uncharged murders. Lost in the blizzard of emotionally-charged testimony was the fact that prosecutors had failed to credibly implicate Muhammad in any of the uncharged shootings. The best the state could do was to repeatedly trot out witnesses who had belatedly come forward to report sightings of the Snipermobile.

As the L.A. Times acknowledged, “Not all of the sightings are equally credible.” Cited as an example was chiropractor Gerald Driscoll, who told the jury a riveting tale of staring down Muhammad and Malvo, only to have his story fall apart almost immediately under cross-examination. As it turned out, Driscoll had a history of reporting bogus sightings.

No one in all of medialand seems to have questioned why, with the insurmountable case they were said to have, prosecutors were so desperate to tie the defendant to a particular crime scene that they turned to an obviously bogus witness. And no one seems to have asked how many other credibility-challenged witnesses the state propped up. And no one, I might add, seems to be familiar with the term “suborning perjury.”

Not to beat a dead horse here, but not a single witness called during the week provided testimony concerning the murder that Muhammad was charged with. Not one. After spending two weeks parading dozens of witnesses before the jury, the state had still only established, through the dubious testimony of just one of those witnesses, that Muhammad was very near the murder scene 30 minutes after the crime was committed.

The third week of the trial kicked off with testimony concerning the murder of Conrad Johnson. Denise Johnson, the bereaved widow, described frantically trying to ascertain her husband’s status. As she recalled for the jury that she had rushed to the hospital but had not gotten a chance to say goodbye, the defense team objected on the grounds that the testimony was inflammatory and irrelevant — which of course it was.

Medical examiner Mary Ripple took the stage to batter jurors once again with yet more gruesome crime scene and autopsy photos. Her testimony was also inflammatory and irrelevant.

Prosecutors again entered into evidence images captured by surveillance cameras, this time from an Outback steakhouse. The Outback cameras captured recognizable images of Muhammad, but the images succeeded only in placing the suspect within a few miles of the Johnson shooting scene, and on the night before the crime was committed.

Investigators claimed that yet another note was recovered from the scene, once again enclosed in a plastic baggie. Once again, the note itself yielded no incriminating evidence, but once again Malvo foolishly left his DNA on the baggie. In addition, Muhammad left behind a duffel bag sprinkled with his DNA.

The state next called witness Whitney Donahue, who told the jury the bizarre tale of the tip that led to the capture and arrest of Muhammad and Malvo. It was Donahue who placed the 911 call to report that the Snipermobile was parked in a roadside rest stop, just hours after Chief Charles Moose delivered his cryptic message to the sniper suspects. Donahue testified that he remained on the line for nearly three hours; from 12:47 AM until 3:30 AM, he said, he provided periodic updates while he awaited the arrival of officers.

Donahue didn’t seem concerned that he had been left alone for nearly three hours, as an unarmed private citizen, to provide surveillance on a team of deadly assassins. And no one covering the trial, of course, found it unusual that it took officers nearly three hours to show up after being notified of the whereabouts of the most wanted, and allegedly most dangerous, man in the country.

What could possibly explain such a lengthy delay? Apparently authorities needed time to insure that they had just the right team assembled to take the suspects into custody and, uhmm, ‘recover’ any evidence from the suspects’ vehicle. Selected for the task, by Supervising Agent Gary Bald, was an elite, and rarely used, FBI hostage rescue team.

The Snipermobile yielded a treasure trove of incriminating evidence that, along with DNA and ballistics evidence, made up the physical component of the state’s case. The improbability of most of the physical evidence nicely complimented the irrelevancy of most of the witness testimony, as we shall see in the next installment, when this story really begins to get interesting …