CHESAPEAKE, Va., Dec. 5 — An expert on cults testified on Friday at the trial of Lee Malvo, the younger suspect in last fall’s sniper attacks in the Washington area. Drawing parallels to the brainwashing of prisoners of war in Korea, to the Jonestown mass suicide and the Branch Davidian siege in Texas, he suggested that John A. Muhammad, who has been sentenced to die for his role in the shootings, may have come to control Mr. Malvo’s mind and free will.
“They can change their moral values,” the expert, Paul R. Martin, said of people who have been indoctrinated. “People can start to engage in crimes. People can kill when they are under this sort of mindset.”
Mr. Martin, who said he had neither interviewed Mr. Malvo nor studied his case, spoke in general terms, over a prosecutor’s frequent and furious objections.
The prosecutor, Robert F. Horan Jr., said: “The red herring in this case is indoctrination. It is the ultimate refuge of mental health scoundrels.”
Mr. Horan added that only people involuntarily held captive, like prisoners of war and hostages, should be able to claim that they were brainwashed.
Mr. Martin said indoctrination was equally possible in voluntary one-on-one settings.
Defense lawyers contend that Mr. Malvo, 18, was particularly susceptible to Mr. Malvo, 42, because the younger man came from a troubled home, moved frequently, was seldom in contact with his parents and was raised in an isolated part of Jamaica. They add that Mr. Muhammad was charming and attentive.
In a series of curious questions, Mr. Horan suggested that Mr. Malvo may have been predisposed to kill before he met Mr. Muhammad.
Mr. Horan asked Mr. Martin to assume that “the person you’re dealing with kills cats, 10 to 15 cats, for no reason.” Would such a person be more susceptible, he asked, to being brainwashed into committing murders?
“There’s a big step from killing cats for no reason to killing people,” Mr. Martin responded.
Mr. Horan disagreed, and said, “If he’s already a cat killer and you want to talk about killing people, it’s less of a jump.”
There has been no evidence of cat killing in the case, and the questions may have been purely hypothetical. But in his own later questions, Thomas Walsh, a lawyer for Mr. Malvo, also pursued the issue.
“If someone were to shoot marbles with a slingshot at a cat,” Mr. Walsh asked, “would they be more susceptible to indoctrination?”
“No,” Mr. Martin replied.
Mr. Martin testified that he had himself been part of the leadership of a cult for seven years.
“I was a lieutenant,” he said. “I was a middle-management type of person.”