Washington sniper suspect goes on trial

The belt of suburbs surrounding Washington DC is preparing to relive the terror of last year's random killings as John Allen Muhammad becomes the first of a pair of alleged snipers to go on trial.

On Tuesday Mr Muhammad, 42, will appear in court in southern Virginia accused of spreading terror around the capital city by opening fire on people as they went about their daily chores, collecting groceries, waiting for buses and filling their cars with petrol. There were 13 shootings in early October 2002 in which 10 people were killed.

In a blow to Mr Muhammad, the judge in the trial ruled last week that his lawyers will not be allowed to discuss his mental state in the case, because they refused to allow prosecutors to examine him. He will be tried specifically for the murder of Dean Meyers, 53, who was cut down while filling his fuel tank at a Virginia petrol station on 9 October last year. If found guilty, Mr Muhammad could face the death penalty.

By contrast, lawyers for his alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, revealed at the end of last week that when their client goes on trial in November, insanity will be the main plank of their defence. Mr Malvo, they argue, was "indoctrinated" by the older man. "Under his spell", he did not know right from wrong.

"Indoctrination is a form of mental illness," insisted his defence lawyer, Craig Cooley. "The degree of indoctrination was so great, the basis of the issue will be put before a jury." Mr Malvo is to be tried for the killing of Linda Franklin, 47, in the car park of a DIY store in Virginia.

Mr Cooley also tried to play down the significance of a confession given by his client to police last November. He said it was offered only in an attempt to protect Mr Muhammad."There are a number of instances in Malvo's statement in which it is clear he was protecting Mr Muhammad," he said.

The two men met in Antigua in 2000. Mr Malvo then accompanied Mr Muhammad to the US, where they apparently drifted together from state to state before arriving in the Washington region early last autumn. Along with the 13 shootings in Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC, the two are suspected in or charged with shootings in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Arizona and Washington state.

Earlier plans to have Mr Malvo testify at the trial of the elder man were shelved by prosecutors last week. The two have been separated since their arrest a year ago. They saw one another for the first time since then last Tuesday, when they appeared together for a pre-trial hearing, but there was no reaction from either, nor any sign of eye contact.

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