Breaking the Spell

For weeks, John Allen Muhammad had tried to dominate the courtroom, making believe he was a worldly wise trial lawyer. The convicted sniper, already sentenced to death for one of the murders in the 2002 killing spree that left 10 dead and three wounded, is now on trial in Maryland. Acting as his own counsel, he badgered witnesses with rambling questions, shouted "Objection!" at all the wrong times and was subject to numerous interruptions by the exasperated judge.

But last week, Muhammad's bravado dimmed after Lee Boyd Malvo, his accomplice, took the stand. Sentenced to life in prison in Virginia and awaiting trial in Maryland later this year, Malvo, now 21, made it clear that any love he'd once had for Muhammad has now hardened into resentment. He claimed that the shootings were just the first part of Muhammad's plan. Muhammad, he said, intended to plant bombs in hospitals and on schoolbuses, and eventually create a compound in Canada where he would train homeless children to "continue the mission" of killing. Malvo said he had been "indoctrinated" by Muhammad. At the end of an emotional day of testimony, Malvo called Muhammad a coward. "You took me into your house and you made me a monster."

This was a far different Malvo from the defiant kid police hauled in four years ago. Then, he had tried to protect Muhammad, insisting that he himself had been the shooter in many of the murders. But now, after nearly four years in prison, Malvo realizes the horror of his crimes, and hopes testifying against Muhammad will help victims' families.

Malvo was a teenager when he met Muhammad in Antigua. Muhammad had stolen his kids from his estranged wife, Mildred, and moved to the island, hoping she wouldn't find him. Malvo's own parents were rarely around, and he used to go to the local electronics store to watch Muhammad play videogames with his son. He wanted to experience, if only vicariously, the feeling of having a father. When Mildred eventually reclaimed the children, Malvo became Muhammad's stand-in son.

At first, Malvo's lawyers worried that their client was too deluded to stand trial. Malvo distrusted his four white attorneys; Muhammad had taught him that whites were devils. "Lee was always very polite and courteous," says Craig Cooley, one of his lawyers in the Virginia trial. But "if you criticized Muhammad ... Lee would simply shut down." So the lawyers brought in Carmeta Albarus-Rodney, a Jamaican-born forensic social worker, hoping she would put Malvo at ease. Albarus-Rodney laid out the facts of the case for Malvo, showing him how Muhammad had lied.

The lawyers also hired Dewey Cornell, a University of Virginia clinical psychologist, to evaluate Malvo. "The indoctrination he underwent was extraordinary," Cornell says. "He developed the conviction that he was doing something heroic with John Muhammad, much like a deluded terrorist might."

A breakthrough came in the spring after his arrest, when Malvo was shown a video of interviews with his family members, former schoolmates and teachers back in Antigua and Jamaica. "He watched that videotape of people expressing a lot of concern and love for him, and he cried," Cornell says. "If there was a single moment where he broke from Muhammad, that was it."

Cornell, who still exchanges letters with Malvo, says the young man told him he was determined to confront Muhammad in court to show his independence, but still feared Muhammad's emotional hold on him. "Unless you've been under that kind of control, this may be something you cannot understand," says Mildred Muhammad, John Muhammad's ex-wife, who is now writing a book on domestic abuse. "I don't excuse what [Malvo] did, but I know it took a lot of strength for him to do that." Muhammad certainly tried to soften him up--calling him "son," recalling good times together--but failed. Malvo, clearer of mind and locked away for life, must now contemplate his crimes without the comfort of delusion.