In a surprising turn of events Monday, John Allen Muhammad, one of two men charged with carrying out last year's deadly sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., area, won the right to represent himself at his murder trial.

Just minutes before prosecutors were to begin presenting evidence, the judge in the case of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad granted him permission to represent himself at trial.

Virginia circuit Judge LeRoy Millette announced that the lawyers who had been helping the sniper suspect prepare for his murder trial would now be considered "standby counsel," meaning they can assist Mr. Muhammad in his legal defense.

John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo are accused of carrying out deadly sniper attacks that killed 10 people and severely wounded three others last year in Washington suburbs.

Mr. Muhammad is on trial for the murder of Dean Meyers. He was gunned down at a Virginia gas station last October. Lee Malvo goes on trial next month for the murder of FBI analyst Linda Franklin. Both men could face the death penalty if convicted.

The sniper trials have been moved out of northern Virginia to the city of Virginia Beach, more than 300 kilomters to the south. Defense lawyers argued it would be hard to find impartial jurors in a region that was gripped by fear during the series of sniper attacks which drew international attention.

The two suspects were arrested last October while sleeping at a highway rest stop in Maryland. Police found a rifle in the car that they say is linked to the sniper attacks.

Prosecutors decided to try the sniper suspects in Virginia first, because the state has some of the toughest death penalty laws in the country. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Virginia has executed 89 criminals, second only to Texas, where the figure is 310.