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Accused Washington DC-Area Sniper Drops Self-Defense Strategy - 2003-10-22

One of two men accused of being the Washington D.C. area sniper has decided to drop his attempt to represent himself in a case that could lead to the death penalty if he's convicted.

Former Army sergeant John Muhammad, 42, stunned a Virginia courtroom when his trial opened Monday by demanding he be allowed to represent himself. The judge agreed, acknowledging the constitutional right of criminal defendants in the United States to serve as their own lawyer. But he urged the man accused of being the mastermind behind last year's serial sniper shootings to reconsider, telling him he had no qualifications to argue a murder case where he could be put to death if convicted. Mr. Muhammed has only a high school education.

On Wednesday, John Muhammad's court-appointed lawyers announced their client had changed his mind and no longer wanted to act as his own defense counsel, and that they would return to defending him.

Legal analysts describe the evidence against John Muhammed as strong. University of Maryland law professor Michael Greenberger therefore says that by deciding not to serve as his own attorney, he made a fateful decision, possibly avoiding the death penalty if he is found guilty.

"He's clearly in better hands and will be better directed toward the saving of his life by having two experienced defense counsel who are very smart and very dedicated trying to handle his case," he said.

John Muhammad's decision to reinstate his defense lawyers came after prosecutors complained he had continued to seek advice from them, even after declaring he was prepared to defend himself.

"It was quite clear from colloquies he was having with his lawyers in their consultative capacity that there were very important concepts of legal evidence that he had no idea how to respond to," he said. "For example, he was apparently quite openly asking his lawyers what hearsay evidence is."

John Muhammad is the first of two accused snipers to go on trial, blamed for a three-week shooting spree that killed 10 people, apparently targeted at random, in the Washington D.C. area a year ago. Set to stand trial next month is his alleged accomplice, 18-year-old Lee Malvo.