Legal experts predict that sniper suspect John Muhammed’s decision to defend himself will have severe consequences for his ability to beat a rap heavily dependent upon circumstantial and scientific evidence. With only a high school education, no formal legal training and little time to learn the complicated rules of criminal evidence and procedure, which favor the prosecution in Virginia, Muhammad won’t necessarily know when to object or why if he chooses to confront the witnesses who take the stand against him. However, his court appointed lawyer Jonathan Shapiro (right) returned to help Monday.

He won’t know how to keep the jury from seeing evidence or hearing testimony if he decides to challenge their admissibility. And for the remainder of what was thought to be a six-week-long trial, Muhammad’s every move, mannerism and utterance will be scrutinized by the jurors.

For the most part Monday, Muhammad was calm and reserved, even on cross-examination. He objected two or three times, and at one point he was given some consideration by the judge. In questioning a prosecution witness who testified that she saw him near a shooting scene, he asked whether she actually saw him shoot anyone. She replied no.

In the end, though, defendants who serve as their own lawyers — a list that includes Ted Bundy, Colin Ferguson, Jack Kevorkian and Zacarias Moussaoui — rarely benefit, the experts said. They could not recall a case in which a murder defendant who chose to represent himself won an acquittal. In one of the more recent national cases, Ferguson, who was charged in a shooting rampage on a Long Island Rail Road commuter train in 1993, was found guilty and received the maximum penalty of life in prison.

Prince William County Circuit Court Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr. did not have much choice when Muhammad asked to serve as his own counsel, several experts said. In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Faretta v. California that defendants have the right to represent themselves if they are considered competent to stand trial. Muhammad waited until the last minute to make his request. Millette could have denied the motion, telling Muhammad that the trial had begun. But legal experts said that ruling could have been overturned on appeal and the trial would have to start over.

For more than a year, Muhammad’s court-appointed attorneys, Peter D. Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro, have been filing scores of pretrial motions, trying to preserve the judicial record for a possible appeal on a number of legal fronts and preparing for their opening statement. Now, Greenspun and Shapiro will sit at the defense table as standby counsel, ready to give Muhammad advice if he requests it.

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