'Two-man killing machine' blamed for sniper deaths

The twin trials in the Washington sniper case overlapped briefly yesterday when prosecutors in both cases depicted the oddball team of John Allen Muhammad, a US Army veteran, and Lee Boyd Malvo, his teenage partner, as a cold-hearted, chillingly precise, two-man killing machine.

As the jury withdrew to decide whether to find Mr Muhammad guilty of capital murder, the prosecutor in Mr Malvo's case made an impassioned opening statement presenting the two men as almost inhuman.

Robert Horan, of the Fairfax County prosecutor's office, told the court in Chesapeake, Virginia: "We will prove to you that [Muhammad] and Malvo were a team. One was a spotter and the other was a shooter and it was designed that way.

"They planned, did reconnaisance, checked areas, checked escape routes ... They shot blacks, they shot whites, they shot Hispanics, they shot an Indian immigrant. And the only thing these people had in common was they were all shot at random. You talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time; for the killers they were in the right place at the right time."

Not far away, in Virginia Beach, another prosecutor, Richard Conway, used similar language in his closing statement, saying the "two-man team is one machine, and what they do, they do as one".

Mr Conway asked the jury: "Who do we think was the captain of this killing team? He's sitting right there in front of us." Mr Muhammad gazed back impassively, media observers reported.

The heated rhetoric is sure to make an impression on jurors in a conservative part of the country, chosen, in part, to maximise the chances of convictions leading to the two men's execution. But it has done little to elucidate the motivation for last autumn's killing spree, in which 10 people were gunned down at random in both the Virginia and Maryland suburbs of Washington.

Mr Muhammad presented little defence at his trial, aside from an incoherent opening statement saying that things were not necessarily as they seemed.

Mr Malvo's lawyers plan to be more active, but their main strategic goal appears to be deflecting the moral blame away from their client and on to the older man.

The defence is expected to argue that Mr Malvo was essentially indoctrinated and is therefore not guilty by reason of insanity. They intend to call Mr Muhammad to the witness stand to explore this theory with him directly.

They are also expected to call Mr Muhammad's former wife Mildred, who has talked about his "manipulative nature" and has offered an intriguing possible motive for the killings.

She believes they were a highly sadistic form of intimidation, that Mr Muhammad knew she would suspect him, and she would quake in terror at the thought that, ultimately, she was the intended victim of the attacks.

The prosecution seems uninterested in such theories, and has focused instead on the attacks themselves, the evidence accumulated to point to Mr Malvo as the trigger-man in at least one of the murders, and the fact that the killers asked for $10m as the price for ceasing their attacks. One of the counts Mr Malvo faces talks of an attempt at extortion "tantamount to terrorism".

Mr Horan, the prosecutor, in his opening statement, alluded to eyewitness evidence placing Mr Malvo at the scene of several shootings, his fingerprints being found on the apparent weapon in one of the murders and a confession contained in a five-hour recorded statement made to detectives two weeks after his arrest.

Although he was only 17 at the time of the shootings, he is being tried as an adult and is therefore deemed eligible for the death penalty. His defence lawyers say they do not plan to dispute the evidence that he was at the scene of at least one of the murders, and that their principal task in the trial will be to save his life.

The fact that the two trials overlapped yesterday was an unintended bureaucratic glitch, caused in part by the unexpected speed with which a jury was impanelled in the Malvo case. Originally, the Muhammad jury were expected to have returned a victory before the Malvo trial got under way.

Now, the Malvo trial will have to be suspended once the opening statements have been presented to make sure there is no cross-contamination. There will therefore be a hiatus of several days, or however long it takes the Muhammad jury to reach a verdict.

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