Teenage sniper accused 'a smart, clever killer'

THE teenage sniper suspect, Lee Boyd Malvo, was portrayed as "a smart, clever killer" by prosecutors and a manipulated "child soldier" by defence lawyers as his trial began yesterday.

In a courtroom 20 miles away, another prosecutor said in closing arguments that his fellow suspect, John Allen Muhammad, and Malvo formed "a sniper-spotter killing team".

Muhammad and the Jamaican-born Malvo are suspected of carrying out a three-week shooting spree last year in the Washington, DC, area that left ten people dead and three injured.

Malvo is on trial over one of the deaths - that of FBI analyst Linda Franklin on 14 October, 2002, in Falls Church. Muhammad, 42, is charged with the killing of Dean Harold Meyers at a petrol station in Virginia on 9 October, 2002. Both could face the death penalty if convicted.

In opening statements in Malvo’s trial, the prosecutor, Robert Horan, told jurors they would hear an audio tape of Malvo made by police in which he describes the killings and "talks about the killing power of the weapon he is using, the damage it can do".

Malvo speaks so casually, Mr Horan said, "it’s hard to remember he’s talking about killing innocent people". He called Malvo "a smart, clever killer".

In his opening statement, his defence attorney, Craig Cooley, described the teenager as an obedient but lonely child, desperate for a father figure, making him vulnerable to indoctrination by Muhammad.

Mr Cooley said Malvo, now 18, was 15 and left alone by his mother when he met Muhammad, "who showed him attention and taught him, in his mind, to be a man".

Malvo’s situation "made him incredibly vulnerable and susceptible to a man who was prepared to manipulate him, who took him in, used him, trained him, indoctrinated him", Mr Cooley said. He said Muhammad turned Malvo into "his child soldier ... just as surely as a potter moulds clay".

In Muhammad’s trial, the prosecutor, Richard Conway, began his closing argument.

"We have a sniper-spotter killing team taking out innocent people," Mr Conway said, adding that the motive was to create terror and try to extort $10 million. Pointing to Muhammad, he said: "This man and the person he held up to be his son, both took direct part in the murders."

While a joint effort, Mr Conway said, Muhammad was clearly "captain of this killing team". A piece of text found on an electronic organiser in Muhammad’s car, he said, referred to "the Muhammad assassinations".

Muhammad’s attorneys, who were to present their closing arguments later, say prosecutors did not prove that their client was the trigger man and argue that jurors therefore cannot sentence him to death under Virginia law. Prosecutors reject that claim, saying it does not matter who fired because the two worked jointly.

Jurors were expected to begin deliberating Muhammad’s fate late last night.

The jury in the Malvo case was selected on Wednesday. Prosecutors say their case should take about a week, while Malvo’s attorneys have some 70 witnesses they could call.

In Muhammad’s trial, jurors heard more than 130 witnesses in three weeks of evidence against Muhammad, but just five witnesses over two hours in his defence. Muhammad, who began the case by firing his lawyers and acting briefly as his own attorney, did not testify on his own behalf.

Meanwhile, FBI and justice department documents obtained by reporters indicate that a government chemist who testified in the case against Muhammad kept a "sloppy" office that raised concerns of contaminated evidence and has made numerous racially insensitive remarks.