If the second week of testimony in the DC Sniper trial proved anything,
it was that prosecutors had, relatively speaking, actually exercised some
restraint during the first week.
The state first wrapped up the testimony concerning the Ballenger shooting
in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Ingrid Shaw, the witness mentioned previously,
offered the jury the improbable scenario that the Snipermobile sat parked
in the same location, across from Ballenger's shop, for at least three-and-a-half
hours before the shooting, after which it promptly pulled away.
Charlene Anderson, a cousin of John Allen Muhammad, then took the stand
to deliver some of the trial's most provocative testimony. Muhammad and
Malvo had arrived at her Baton Rouge home last year, Anderson recalled, with
a story about being on a covert military assignment. Their mission, her
cousin had told her, was to recover stolen C-4 military explosives.
To most people, such stories indicate that Muhammad is either delusional,
or he is a liar. It is quite possible, however, that what Muhammad told
Anderson was the truth as he knew it. The pair were most likely part
of a covert military operation. And as low-level operatives in that campaign,
they certainly would not have been informed of their true mission, but would
instead have been given a 'cover' story. That would be particularly true,
needless to say, if their real assignment was to serve as unwitting patsies.
From the stand, Anderson claimed that Muhammad had brought with him an
Army duffel bag containing what she described as a military rifle, which
he had proudly showed off. Two months earlier, however, Anderson had told
an investigator for the defense that she had not seen a gun during her cousin's
Prosecutors next shifted the focus of the trial back to Maryland, following
the alleged trail of the killers. After committing two robbery/shootings
in Maryland with a .22-caliber handgun, and then detouring, for no discernible
reason, to Alabama and Louisiana - where they committed two robbery/shootings
with a high-powered rifle, although the assailant was seen with a handgun
- the pair then purportedly ventured back to Maryland, where they began a
series of random sniper killings. The state would, eventually, include in
their meandering case a couple of crimes other than the Meyers shooting that
were actually committed in the state of Virginia. But not quite yet.
First on prosecutors' to-do list was calling a string of witnesses to
recreate for the jury the mass panic that accompanied the deaths of four
sniper victims in a single morning, and a fifth before that day was over.
Strangely though, prosecutors skipped over the shooting of James "Sonny"
Buchanan, the first victim gunned down on October 3, 2002. Buchanan was
shot at 7:41 AM, just 31 minutes before Premkumar Walekar was shot, and
just 56 minutes before Sarah Ramos was shot. The Buchanan shooting was
conspicuous in its absence, considering that prosecutors seemed intent on
introducing evidence of as many uncharged murders as possible.
Why then was the Buchanan murder ignored (as well as the murder of James
Martin, who was gunned down on October 2, 2002)? Perhaps prosecutors decided
it would be best to avoid explaining to the jury how one self-styled sniper
team, unfamiliar with the terrain in which they were operating, shot and
killed three victims at three separate locations in under an hour -- effortlessly
moving from crime scene to crime scene, quickly scouting out potential victims,
instinctively finding escape routes and avoiding detection.
Witness Andrea Walekar, the daughter of victim Premkumar Walekar, was
called to the stand to recall for the jury her frantic efforts to contact
her father that tragic morning. She ultimately learned his fate from television
reports. Pediatrician Caroline Namrov spoke of her futile, desperate efforts
to save the dying man. Police Cpl. Paul Kukucka described racing to the
scene, weaving through traffic, only to find the victim beyond help when
It all made for dramatic, emotional, gut-wrenching testimony -- but
none of it was relevant to determining whether John Allen Muhammad had
anything to do with the shooting of Premkumar Walekar. None of the witnesses
placed Muhammad, his vehicle, or his partner anywhere near the scene. According
to the Los Angeles Times, Mary Ripple, the state medical examiner
who had performed the autopsy on Walekar, provided the only tenuous link to
Muhammad. Ripple informed the jury that "the .223-caliber bullet that killed
[Walekar] could only have come from one Bushmaster XM-15 rifle." If so, then
Ms. Ripple is a remarkably skilled medical examiner -- one who can not only
identify the cause of death as a .223-caliber bullet, but can tell you exactly
which firearm that bullet was fired from.
Witness Ralph Sheldon testified that he saw victim Sarah Ramos sitting
on a bench at a Maryland shopping center just before he heard a shot ring
out. He then saw Ramos slumped over, blood pouring from her head. Officer
Cynthia Martin described arriving at the bloody scene. The medical examiner
offered a graphic description of the effect that a high-velocity bullet
has on the human head. As always, gruesome photos were projected on a screen
to shock and repulse the jury. Ramos' husband delivered the eulogy.
Other witnesses then took the stand to offer accounts of the lives,
and the tragic deaths, of victims Lori Lewis-Rivera, shot at 9:58 AM on
October 3, 2002, and Pascal Charlot, shot that same evening at 9:15 PM.
The names of the witnesses were new, but their testimony was hauntingly
Washington, D.C. police officer Henry Gallagher claimed from the stand
that he had stopped Muhammad in the Snipermobile on that bloody day, just
a few hours before the Charlot shooting. Muhammad, who was alone in the
vehicle, had run two stop signs. Gallagher let him off with a warning. Four
civilian witnesses claimed that they had seen the Snipermobile near shooting
scenes. Makeup artist Kerry Turner said she saw the car shortly before Sarah
Ramos was shot. An accountant remembered seeing it near where Lewis-Rivera
was killed. And Karl Largie and Gail Howard, identified as the manager and
owner of a restaurant, saw it just after Charlot was gunned down.
Witness/victim Caroline Seawell was then called to the stand to relive
the harrowing experience of being shot in the back without warning on the
afternoon of October 4, 2002. "I still have bullet fragments inside me,"
she explained to the jury. Another witness placed the Snipermobile at the
scene, just minutes after the shooting.
Iran Brown, at 13 (now 14) the only child victim, took the stand to
describe being shot in front of his school in Bowie, Maryland. His parents
had reportedly tried to prevent the state from calling him as a witness,
believing the boy would be further traumatized by the experience. His appearance
was required only for the prejudicial effect that a child victim's emotional
testimony would have on the jury. Iran's aunt, Tanya Brown, who had dropped
her nephew off at school that day, recalled driving him to an urgent care
center. Physician Martin Eichelberger spoke of treating the boy's grave
Baltimore police officer James Snyder testified that he happened upon Muhammad,
sleeping in his Snipermobile, at 3:00 AM the morning after the shooting.
Snyder was the third officer to tell the jury that he had stopped the
Snipermobile during the first week of the shootings. Strangely enough, he
was also the third officer to tell the jury that Muhammad, purportedly one-half
of an inseparable team, had been alone in the car.
Where had Malvo been at 3:00 in the morning, deprived of transportation
and lodging, while his master slept? And where had he been just hours before
the Charlot shooting? And where had he been just after the Meyers shooting,
as the Snipermobile allegedly fled the scene? According to prosecutors,
Malvo had been in the trunk when Muhammad had been stopped by officer Bailey.
But according to Bailey's account, that encounter occurred a half-hour after
the Meyers shooting. And according to the state's case, the Snipermobile
was set up to allow a shooter to quickly and surreptitiously position himself
partially within the trunk to take a shot. There would have been no reason
for Malvo to squirm completely into the trunk. And there was certainly no
reason for him to remain there for a half-hour.
Gerald Driscoll, identified as a chiropractor, was called to offer testimony
about his sighting of the Snipermobile, and its occupants, near the school
where Brown was shot. Prosecutors seemed to have no shortage of civilian
witnesses who recalled seeing the dark blue Caprice lurking near crime
scenes, just as they had no shortage of police witnesses who recalled encountering
the vehicle, although there was never a single mention of such a car during
the media circus that accompanied the killings.
Police Cpl. Charles Nelson told of finding a Tarot card bearing an ominous
message about 100 yards from where Brown was shot. A police cadet claimed
that he found a discarded ballpoint pen barrel about 25 feet from where
that card was found. A bullet casing was found in the same area. Prosecutors
promised that evidence would show that Muhammad's DNA was on the pen barrel
and Malvo’s DNA was on the Tarot card. And the shell casing, to no one's
surprise, would be connected to the Bushmaster rifle. If the state’s reconstruction
of the crimes is accurate, however, any shell casings would have ejected
into a closed trunk. It would have been all but impossible for a shell casing
to have been left behind inadvertently. That key piece of evidence, therefore,
had to have been left at the scene deliberately.
Nancy Demme, a police captain, took the stand to describe the panic-stricken
reaction of suburban parents to the deliberate targeting of a child. Demme
had, perhaps significantly, been on the job less than a month when she
emerged as a key player in the sniper saga. Her testimony was, by any reasonable
standard, inflammatory and irrelevant. But according to the state, Demme’s
testimony was necessary to demonstrate that the intent of the crime was
to terrorize society -- even though the crime that caused the fear that
Demme described was not the crime that Muhammad was charged with.
Moving on to the next sniper shooting, medical examiner Deborah Kay
provided a description of the massive internal injuries suffered by sniper
victim Kenneth Bridges, who was shot in the back on the morning of October
11, 2002. As Kay displayed yet another series of gruesome autopsy photos,
defense lawyers raised an objection -- one that had been raised and overruled
repeatedly. The photos, they argued, "don't add a thing to the case. The
cause of death is indisputable."
Although the judge was not swayed by that argument, the cause of death
was, of course, indisputable, as it was with all of the sniper victims.
There was no disagreement that each had been killed by a single bullet fired
by an unseen assassin with a high-powered rifle. The only relevant question
for the court to address was whether the man who stood accused was that
And yet, amazingly enough, prosecutors openly declared that the answer
to that question was largely irrelevant. It didn’t matter, they argued,
who actually pulled the trigger. In fact, the state’s position was that
Muhammad fired few, if any, of the fatal shots. Malvo was routinely credited
with being the “trigger man.” Prosecutors even openly acknowledged that
it was very unlikely that Muhammad shot the one victim that they charged
him with shooting.
But Malvo, according to the state of Virginia's crack prosecution team,
was completely under the control of Muhammad, who was, they said, a "mind
controller." Malvo, they argued, was “brainwashed.” He was little more
than a tool, an "instrument of death and destruction," much like the Snipermobile
and the Bushmaster rifle.
That was, you see, a perfectly reasonable scenario for distinguished
prosecutors to sell to a jury, and for the mainstream media to report without
a hint of skepticism. But let someone suggest an only slightly different
scenario, such as that both Malvo and Muhammad were, and
still are, the “brainwashed” tools of unseen actors, and let the scoffing
and the eye rolling begin. Clearly, only a 'conspiracy theorist' would suggest
something so ludicrous.
The state of Virginia, by the way, while still portraying Malvo as the mindless
puppet of his master, Muhammad, began selecting a jury that it hopes will
convict the teenager of first-degree murder and sentence him to death. To
do so, of course, the state will have to employ a different strategy entirely
-- one that explicitly repudiates the very arguments that were used to
justify Muhammad’s conviction. But here, yet again, we've gotten ahead
Christine Goodwin and Patricia Bradshaw both took the stand to insist
that they saw the Snipermobile in the vicinity of the scene of the Bridges
shooting. "Everything about that car," Goodwin told the jury, "was wrong."
So wrong, she said, that her "first instinct" was to call the police – although
she didn’t. She later heard that a man had been killed at the very gas station
where she claims that she saw the Snipermobile. She waited almost two weeks
to report the sighting.
Prosecutors next moved on to the shooting of Linda Franklin. William Franklin,
who was with his wife when she was killed on October 11, 2002, provided
both eyewitness testimony and a eulogy. A tape of his anguished 911 call
was played for the jury. It was just one of many 911 tapes that prosecutors
played throughout the trial, often leaving the jurors visibly shaken. Needless
to say, none of those harrowing tapes provided any insight into who committed
the murders that caused such anguish. The jury also viewed, along with the
bereaved widower, a crime scene photo that revealed, in grisly detail,
that the right side of Linda Franklin's face had been blown away.
Yet another law enforcement officer took the stand, this time to claim
that she had seen Malvo driving the Snipermobile not long after the shooting,
about ten miles from the scene. The officer had just left a restaurant,
where she had, as she acknowledged, slammed down a few beers.
Linda Franklin, it must be noted, was a 'counter-terrorism' expert with
the FBI. Her job involved keeping tabs on warnings of possible terrorist
threats -- such as all those specific warnings that came in prior to September
11, 2001. Franklin was probably not, in other words, a randomly selected target.
One witness not called by the state was Matthew Dowdy, who had reported
to police that he saw Franklin’s killer fire a single shot with an AK-47
rifle and then drive off in a light-colored van. A few days later, Dowdy
was arrested and charged with making false and deliberately misleading statements.
Those allegedly false and misleading statements, of course, pointed to a
killer other than Muhammad or Malvo. It was never explained why Dowdy would
deliberately try to derail a high profile, and high stakes, investigation.
He quickly became a forgotten footnote to the sniper case.
Next to take the stand was Monsignor William Sullivan, who described receiving
the bizarre telephone call on October 18, 2002 that allegedly led police
directly to the Montgomery, Alabama shooting scene (except that Sullivan
initially thought the call was a hoax, which is why he didn't report it to
authorities, and which leaves open the question of why the investigation
suddenly shifted to Alabama, and from there to Muhammad and Malvo). From
the stand, Sullivan was not able to identify who he had spoken to on the
phone that day.
The focus of the trial next shifted to the shooting of victim Jeffrey Hopper
in the parking lot of a Ponderosa steakhouse restaurant. Hopper took
the stand to provide a first-person account of being shot with a high-powered
rifle. Prosecutors then presented a convoluted body of evidence that purportedly
linked Muhammad to the crime.
A four-page note, enclosed in a plastic baggie, was found tacked to a
tree near the scene. That note, demanding that $10 million be deposited
into a credit card account, was an important element of the state's case,
since it allegedly showed that Muhammad was attempting to extort money from
the government, thus qualifying him as a 'terrorist.' Mark James, with
the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, read the note
aloud to the jury.
There was nothing on the note itself to link it to Muhammad or Malvo. No
fingerprints, no fibers, no hairs. But on the baggie, incredibly
enough, investigators recovered Malvo's DNA. It's a good thing then that
the pair decided to slip the note into the baggie. They also apparently
decided to deliberately leave behind another shell casing. And, according
to deputy James Sizemore, a bag of Cinna-raisins that yielded Malvo's
According to the testimony of Sheriff's deputy Drew Darby, the paper
and the stickers that had been used to create the note, and the baggie that
held the note, were only sold at the Ashland Big Lots store, which
was just two miles from the Ponderosa steakhouse. A short, grainy
video clip from a Big Lots' surveillance camera was aired. Prosecutors
argued, though apparently not convincingly, that Muhammad's image was captured
on that tape.
Meanwhile, Jill Lynn Farell, the owner of the credit card referenced in
the note, testified that the card had been stolen from her in March 2002 while
she was driving a Greyhound bus in the state of Arizona. It is unclear exactly
how her testimony tied the stolen credit card to Muhammad.
That about wrapped up the second week of the DC Sniper trial. The L.A.
Times, in summing up the testimony to that point, observed that prosecutors
had "designed a strategy both understated and graphic. In voices etched
with heartbreak, loved ones recall the dead. Old snapshots of the victims
are shown, brimming with life, then contrasted with grisly crime scene and
While the state's presentation had certainly been graphic, the only
thing that had been "understated" had been the evidence tying the defendant,
John Allen Muhammad, to the string of uncharged murders. Lost in the
blizzard of emotionally-charged testimony was the fact that prosecutors had
failed to credibly implicate Muhammad in any of the uncharged shootings.
The best the state could do was to repeatedly trot out witnesses who had
belatedly come forward to report sightings of the Snipermobile.
As the L.A. Times acknowledged, "Not all of the sightings are equally
credible." Cited as an example was chiropractor Gerald Driscoll, who told
the jury a riveting tale of staring down Muhammad and Malvo, only to have
his story fall apart almost immediately under cross-examination. As it turned
out, Driscoll had a history of reporting bogus sightings.
No one in all of medialand seems to have questioned why, with the insurmountable
case they were said to have, prosecutors were so desperate to tie the defendant
to a particular crime scene that they turned to an obviously bogus witness.
And no one seems to have asked how many other credibility-challenged witnesses
the state propped up. And no one, I might add, seems to be familiar with
the term "suborning perjury."
Not to beat a dead horse here, but not a single witness called during
the week provided testimony concerning the murder that Muhammad was charged
with. Not one. After spending two weeks parading dozens of witnesses before
the jury, the state had still only established, through the dubious testimony
of just one of those witnesses, that Muhammad was very near the murder scene
30 minutes after the crime was committed.
The third week of the trial kicked off with testimony concerning the murder
of Conrad Johnson. Denise Johnson, the bereaved widow, described frantically
trying to ascertain her husband's status. As she recalled for the jury
that she had rushed to the hospital but had not gotten a chance to say
goodbye, the defense team objected on the grounds that the testimony was
inflammatory and irrelevant -- which of course it was.
Medical examiner Mary Ripple took the stage to batter jurors once again
with yet more gruesome crime scene and autopsy photos. Her testimony was also
inflammatory and irrelevant.
Prosecutors again entered into evidence images captured by surveillance
cameras, this time from an Outback steakhouse. The Outback
cameras captured recognizable images of Muhammad, but the images succeeded
only in placing the suspect within a few miles of the Johnson shooting scene,
and on the night before the crime was committed.
Investigators claimed that yet another note was recovered from the scene,
once again enclosed in a plastic baggie. Once again, the note itself yielded
no incriminating evidence, but once again Malvo foolishly left his DNA on
the baggie. In addition, Muhammad left behind a duffel bag sprinkled with
The state next called witness Whitney Donahue, who told the jury the
bizarre tale of the tip that led to the capture and arrest of Muhammad and
Malvo. It was Donahue who placed the 911 call to report that the Snipermobile
was parked in a roadside rest stop, just hours after Chief Charles Moose
delivered his cryptic message to the sniper suspects. Donahue testified
that he remained on the line for nearly three hours; from 12:47 AM until
3:30 AM, he said, he provided periodic updates while he awaited the arrival
Donahue didn't seem concerned that he had been left alone for nearly three
hours, as an unarmed private citizen, to provide surveillance on a team
of deadly assassins. And no one covering the trial, of course, found it
unusual that it took officers nearly three hours to show up after being
notified of the whereabouts of the most wanted, and allegedly most dangerous,
man in the country.
What could possibly explain such a lengthy delay? Apparently authorities
needed time to insure that they had just the right team assembled to take
the suspects into custody and, uhmm, 'recover' any evidence from the suspects'
vehicle. Selected for the task, by Supervising Agent Gary Bald, was an
elite, and rarely used, FBI hostage rescue team.
The Snipermobile yielded a treasure trove of incriminating evidence that,
along with DNA and ballistics evidence, made up the physical component
of the state's case. The improbability of most of the physical evidence
nicely complimented the irrelevancy of most of the witness testimony, as
we shall see in the next installment, when this story really begins to get