Drama at the start of sniper trial as accused conducts own defence

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With a dramatic piece of courtroom theatre, prosecutors opened their case yesterday against the man accused of masterminding the Washington sniper shootings that left 10 dead and terrorised millions in the region last year.

The defendent responded with some theatre of his own, telling the judge, LeRoy Millette, that he wished to represent himself during the trial.

Before outlining to the jury the evidence against John Allen Muhammad, prosecutor James Willett assembled the high-powered rifle with which the defendant and a teenage accomplice allegedly shot their victims and tried to extort $10m (£6m) from the US government. Propped on its two-legged stand, the Bushmaster .223 rifle sat on a table just feet from the jurors as they looked across at the man described as the "captain'' of the sniper team.

In a rambling opening statement, Mr Muhammad told the jurors he had "nothing to do with these crimes". He also spoke about the meaning of truth, saying at one point: "Jesus said, 'Ye shall know the truth'. "There's three truths," he told the court. "The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I always thought there was just one truth. The facts should help us identify what's a lie, what's not a lie."

It is 12 months since the series of shootings in the Washington area that all but paralysed a region still cowed by the terror attacks of 11 September 2001. During the 23 days, as 13 randomly selected victims, including a schoolboy, were shot, normal life was put on hold. Schools were shut, sports matches were cancelled and volunteers positioned themselves at petrol stations to fill the fuel tanks of customers too scared to leave their cars.

"I am going to ask everybody to come back in time with me, almost a year ago," said Mr Willett, prosecuting for the state of Virginia, as he described the early hours of 24 October last year when Mr Muhammad and his alleged accomplice, Lee Malvo, 18, were arrested in their car at a rest stop in rural Maryland. "[It was] the day when we would finally see an end to the killing and the terrorism," he said.

Mr Willett showed the jury a photograph of the pair's car, a blue Chevrolet Caprice that he said had been specially modified to make a shooting space in the boot and back seat. A hole had been drilled in the rear panel of the boot through which a rifle could be aimed. "The Caprice enabled them to park wherever they wanted, and to kill wherever they wanted," he said.

Mr Muhammad is charged with four counts relating to the death of one of the victims, 53-year-old Dean Myers, who was the seventh victim. If he is found not guilty on those charges, Mr Muhammad would be transferred to one of the other authorities who have brought separate murder charges against him. Because prosecutors are unlikely to be able to prove Mr Muhammad actually fired the shots that killed the victims ­ fulfiling Virginia's so-called "triggerman's rule" required for the death penalty ­ they have brought two specific charges against him that still qualify for capital punishment. One of these has been brought under a new and untested terrorism statute, in which prosecutors will argue that the motive for the killings was the extortion of $10m from the government.

Though Mr Muhammad has pleaded not guilty, prosecutors will argue that he was present during 11 of the 13 Washington killings, as well as a double murder in Alabama and a murder in Louisiana.

Mr Malvo, said to have been the gunman in most of the shootings, is being tried separately and is expected to use an insanity defence, next month.

The teenager, aged just 17 at the time of the killings, is thought likely to make an appearance at Mr Muhammad's trial, as a prosecution witness.

Mark Spicer, a sergeant- major with the British Army and head of its sniper school, said that the spotter was the more important member of a sniper team. "The spotter is the protector of the team. He ensures they are not surprised by the enemy or the general public. He finds targets for the primary shooter to engage."

The state of Virginia was one of several jurisdictions that sought to be the first to try the sniper suspects. After heated negotiations it was decided Virginia should try the case, not least because of its experience with capital cases. Other than Texas, Virginia executed more death row inmates than any other state.