Young U.S. Sniper Suspect Set for Trial on Monday

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Lee Malvo, the 18-year-old suspect in a string of sniper-style shootings that terrorized the U.S. capital region last year, was headed for trial on Monday in the murder of an FBI analyst.

Malvo, 17 at the time of the attacks, faces two murder counts and a weapons charge in the death of Linda Franklin, who was gunned down on Oct. 14, 2002, as she loaded purchases into her car in a parking lot in Washington’s Virginia suburbs.

One of the charges against Malvo invokes Virginia’s new anti-terrorism law, enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Both murder charges carry a possible death sentence upon conviction; Virginia permits the execution of criminals as young as 16, and Malvo is being tried there as an adult.

His trial was moved from Fairfax County, just west of Washington, to the city of Chesapeake, some 200 miles away, in search of jurors with little exposure to the case.

Malvo’s attorneys plan an insanity defense, arguing that their young client was brainwashed by his alleged accomplice, 42-year-old John Muhammad.

Muhammad’s trial in a separate Virginia murder is proceeding in Virginia Beach, which is far from the Washington area but only a few miles from Malvo’s trial.

Malvo defense attorney Michael Arif said his client was not surprised when Muhammad decided to act as his own lawyer for two days at the beginning of his trial.

“It’s consistent with Muhammad’s need to control,” Arif said outside the older man’s trial last month. “He’s going to try to control the courtroom. He’s a control freak.”

Much of the evidence at Muhammad’s trial has suggested that Malvo was part of a two-person sniper team, but Steven Hassan, a former member of the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon and now an expert on mind control, said Muhammad may have been able to control Malvo and make him commit crimes.

MIND CONTROL?

“Mind control is a dissociative disorder where a person’s real identity is suppressed under a cult identity,” Hassan said by telephone.

While noting that he had no specific details on Malvo’s case, Hassan said, “If there’s no contact with outside sources of influence and if the person’s cult identity is made to be completely obedient, like a soldier in a war is to his officer, I would say Malvo had no access to his real identity and therefore no personal will that could contradict his orders.”

Malvo and Muhammad have been linked to 13 shootings, including 10 deaths, in and around Washington in October 2002. Just 13 months after the area was traumatized by the Sept. 11 attacks, in which 184 people were killed at the Pentagon, the 23-day shooting spree spread high anxiety into some of the area’s most peaceful residential neighborhoods.

The seemingly random attacks showed no apparent pattern with regard to race, age or sex, disrupting the lives of millions and creating a climate in which normally staid citizens zigzagged when walking across parking lots, crouched behind their cars when pumping gas and avoided public areas in general.

The attacks stopped after Muhammad and Malvo were arrested together as they slept at a roadside rest area in a Chevrolet Caprice automobile on Oct. 24, 2002.

The car has been central to Muhammad’s trial. Prosecutors have described its specially designed “sniper’s nest” with an area for a shooter to lie prone and fire a rifle through a hole cut in the trunk.

Another major piece of evidence at Muhammad’s trial is a .223 Bushmaster rifle, which prosecutors have identified as the murder weapon and displayed prominently in the courtroom.

Malvo has declined to testify in Muhammad’s trial, but he has appeared before that jury so various witnesses could identify him. His prison jumpsuit and haunted demeanor contrast with one of the first published pictures of him sitting beside Muhammad, and broadly smiling.

The two were traveling companions, but Muhammad referred to Malvo as his son and reportedly supervised his diet and monitored his activities.

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