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The View From The Sniper's Car

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.


They were thick as thieves in 2002 and between the two of them, they brought an entire region of the country to a crawl. Even if you didn't live in or near Washington's Beltway that fall, even if you didn't have to travel along its highways or stop for gas along its roads, you could sympathize with the thousands upon thousands of poor people who did.

For a month, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, one a certified loser and the other his terribly misguided ward, mocked life and all of its treasures with their random sniper attacks.

On Tuesday, we finally got an inside glimpse into that evil world and what we saw and heard in a Montgomery County courtroom ought to remind us all of the harm that even just a pair of bad men can do.

After cutting a deal with Maryland prosecutors, and already serving a life sentence in Virginia, Malvo turned with pointed wrath upon his former mentor, a man he told jurors he had once "loved." In heart-tearing detail, Malvo described his relationship with Muhammad and the precise method by which the pair murdered.

Malvo's in-court, under-oath confession won't in any practical or meaningful way affect either his life or Muhammad's. Muhammad will be executed in Virginia at some point after being convicted on capital charges there a few years ago and Malvo will spend the rest of his young life — he's only 21— wasting away in jail.

The Maryland prosecution of Muhammad — a backup, say state prosecutors, in case the Virginia conviction somehow falls apart on appeal — is important only for what it offers in the way of answers to the family members of victims and to the survivors of the attacks.

And it is relevant only for what it offers history as a way of describing, if not entirely explaining, what happened in Maryland and Virginia and the District of Columbia during those frenetic weeks.

And what a horrible history it is. Malvo told jurors that Muhammad planned for the pair to undertake a month-long siege of the Washington area in which they would randomly shoot six people per day for 30 days. Then, Malvo said, the pair planned to blow up school buses and murder police officers and then set off a bomb at the funerals.

Why? Malvo was asked in court. "For the sheer terror of it," he quoted Muhammad as saying, and even if this exact piece of Malvo's story is a little bit puffed up for the jurors it surely isn't far from what Muhammad likely would have said.

Malvo came from a broken home, he testified, and easily came under Muhammad's spell: a son looking for a father in all the wrong places.

When Muhammad told Malvo of a kooky plan to start a commune in Canada after kidnapping his three children, Malvo testified that he believed him "because he is a man of his word. If he tells you he is going to do something it is done. If it he says it, it is legit." This from a man, Malvo also told jurors, who taught him that white people are "the devil."

Later, the ersatz father and son would fight over the fact that they weren't meeting their self-imposed quota of death. "I'm not going to deal with it," Malvo quoted Muhammad as saying during this fight, just before he forced an immature-acting Malvo out of their Chevrolet Caprice and left him for a brief time somewhere in the middle of the killing zone.

Much later, after Malvo had shot a man in Ashland, Virginia, Muhammad allegedly boasted: "I've created a monster." What a perversion of the role an older man ought to have in the life of a younger man.

Malvo went through each shooting, point by point, ticking off one element of the crime after another.

He was the spotter from inside their car, he told jurors, except when he was the shooter. Often, he told the panel, Muhammad and he were foiled by the proximity of too many potential witnesses.

One night, he testified, the pair spent a night in a Baltimore area cemetery laying in wait to shoot pregnant women entering or leaving a nearby fast food restaurant.

Malvo saw four such women, he now says, but he couldn't pull the trigger. Can you imagine what it must have been like to have been a juror inside that courtroom Tuesday?

Muhammad didn't have much of a chance to cross-examine the young man he once called his "son." He'll be able to do that at greater length on Wednesday, an event which is likely to generate even more tension and drama than court observers noticed and noted on Tuesday.

Muhammad almost certainly will try to convince jurors that Malvo has again been brainwashed, this time by law enforcement officials, to provide prosecutors with good evidence against him. Either that, or Muhammad will turn on his mentee the way Malvo has turned on him, in which case Montgomery County Circuit Judge James L. Ryan will quickly shut down the defense.

But the defense has never mattered in this trial and never will. All that matters is that we know more today than we did yesterday about how this tragedy came about.

Toward the end of his direct testimony, Malvo turned directly to Muhammad and said in front of everyone: "You took me into your house and you made me a monster."

That may be true. And if it is, it ought to be added to the list of charges for which Muhammad may have to one day answer. But Malvo himself cannot now in word or deed, under oath or not, escape any measure of his own responsibility for what misery the pair sowed.

To believe otherwise is to believe that Malvo never made a single, voluntary choice along his allotted path in life. And I would bet that few people are willing to so believe after witnessing Malvo's performance from the witness stand.

He did the nation a service Tuesday by finally coming clean. He offered a detailed and objectively-supportable narrative of the sniper killings that is likely to last as the authoritative one.

He can never make good his massive debt to all those people, not just the ones who were murdered or wounded, but also the ones who survived, day in and day out, not knowing if they, too, would randomly and tragically end up in a sniper's scope.
By Andrew Cohen

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