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Accused Sniper Malvo's Defense Advances 'Brainwashing' Strategy - 2003-12-06

As a second so-called sniper trial moves toward closing arguments in a Virginia courtroom, lawyers for defendant Lee Boyd Malvo are mounting an uncommon form of an insanity defense. They argue that the 18-year-old Jamaica native was brainwashed by his 42-year-old accomplice, John Muhammad, into shooting 10 strangers in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., last year. In a separate trial, Muhammad was convicted of one Virginia killing and sentenced to death. Lee Malvo's attorneys hope the brainwashing defense can spare their client a similar outcome.

Lee Malvo may not be another Richard Shaw; the robotic pawn who was mesmerized by mind-control masters into attacking a presidential candidate in the chilling 1962 movie The Manchurian Candidate.

Nor did the lonely, fatherless young man, who was abandoned by his mother, apparently exhibit wildly combustible behavior some might expect of an insane killer.

But Mr. Malvo's defense team paints the picture of an empty emotional vessel, desperate for approval and ripe for manipulation by a hate-filled father figure.

The prosecution, in turn, depicts Lee Malvo as a bright young man who perfectly well knew right from wrong, an important legal standard of guilt.

Along with a colleague at the Washington Post newspaper, Sari Horwitz wrote a book about the case called Sniper: Inside the Hunt for the Killers that Terrorized the Nation. Months of interviews with friends and relatives of John Muhammad and Lee Malvo gave Ms. Horwitz an insight into the impressionable teenager who grew up penniless on the island of Jamaica.

"His mother would leave him often to go find work on other islands," she explained. "He was a very good student, loved to draw, and was an obedient, seemingly kind child - until about 1999 or 2000, when his mother moved them once again - this time to the island of Antigua. And she met a man named John Muhammad. Mr. Muhammad had come from the United States. He had abducted his children, and he was in the business of selling illegal documents for people to come into America."

When Lee Malvo's mother once again left in search of work, she entrusted her son to Muhammad, who then moved with his own three children far away, to Washington State on the U.S. West Coast. Lee Malvo soon joined him. There, evidence shows, the older man, who was involved in several bitter racial incidents during 17 years of U.S. Army service, taught the younger man marksmanship.

After the sniper attacks of 2002, Muhammad and Malvo were arrested in the largest manhunt in American history. Muhammad refused to talk about the killings, but in long interviews with local authorities and the FBI, Lee Malvo described a carefully planned military-style search and destroy mission.

"The picture that emerges of Lee Malvo from that confession is one of a cold-blooded killer," said Sari Horwitz. "He has no remorse. He talks about the fun they had in taking the head shots and watching the victims. Lee Malvo says that if he had the chance, he would do it all again."

The fingerprints on the alleged murder weapon were not of the older military man but of his young protégé. Experts say it was Lee Malvo's voice on the calls made to police. And witnesses have testified that it was young Mr. Malvo's writing on notes and a Tarot card found at the scenes of some of the shootings.

"A letter came out yesterday that Lee Malvo wrote to a niece of John Muhammad's that he met, where he seemed to be crying out for help," she said. "And he talks about having a 'father' - and we believe this to be Muhammad - who would [ultimately] kill him to have a righteous society."

Dr. John Lucas is a New York City psychiatrist who has testified for the defense in cases where indoctrination was advanced as a defense or mitigating factor meant to soften the penalty imposed on the defendant. Dr. Lucas says such cases involve a power imbalance between a manipulator and someone who may be unstable, old and weak, or young and vulnerable. One case involved Wendy Gardner, the 15-year-old daughter of drug-abusing parents who was living with her grandmother. One day, the girl convinced her boyfriend to strangle the woman and stuff the woman's body into the trunk of a car.

"Wendy was desperate to establish a relationship - any relationship - with a seemingly powerful individual who promised to free her from an impoverished and physically abusive environment," said Dr. Lucas. "The manipulation was a two-way street. She offered him a relationship. The synergy of the two resulted in the grandmother's death." Like Lee Malvo, Dr. Lucas says, Wendy Gardner was a loner, desperate for affection. But jurors were unmoved. They convicted her and imposed a five-years-to-life sentence.

"Juries are fundamentally reluctant to accept the notion that humans are so pliable, that human will can be bent in that way," he said. Sociologist James Richardson teaches at the National Judicial College, a training center for judges at the University of Nevada at Reno. He says the brainwashing defense has been tried unsuccessfully in high-profile cases like the 1976 trial of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst. She was kidnapped by armed revolutionaries but - toting a machine gun - later joined them in robbing a California bank. Unmoved by her defense of indoctrination, a jury found her guilty. Mr. Richardson says that although jurors are often sympathetic to the emotional pressure put on malleable suspects by conniving accomplices, they return to a premise of American justice, that people are responsible for their own actions.

"They can't just say, overtly, 'Malvo was brainwashed,' because that doesn't have any standing in the law," Mr. Richardson said. "So they have to try to shoehorn it in under something that is in the law, the insanity defense. Even if they end up finding him guilty, this same jury is going to decide on the penalty. And they've got this type of testimony on their minds. This was a horrendous crime - snipers shooting people. To say you were brainwashed is [a justification] most jurors have not been very responsive to."

Across the United States, insanity is raised as a defense in only one percent of criminal cases and fewer than one fourth of these attempts are successful. In those few cases, prosecutors usually agree that a severe mental illness contributed to the defendant's actions. In a region that was nearly paralyzed with fear during the sniper rampage a year ago, prosecutors are not expected to suggest leniency for young, impressionable Lee Boyd Malvo when they present their closing arguments.