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Muhammad blames toothache for lawyer switch

Muhammad listens as attorneys Peter Greenspun, center, and Jonathan Shapiro watch Wednesday's trial proceedings.
Muhammad listens as attorneys Peter Greenspun, center, and Jonathan Shapiro watch Wednesday's trial proceedings.

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CNN's Jeanne Meserve on sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad's decision to reinstate his attorneys.
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A policeman testifies about encountering Muhammad after one of the sniper shootings.
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CNN's Jeffrey Toobin on Muhammad's earlier decision to represent himself.
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CNN's Jeanne Meserve on Muhammad's first day in court.
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VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia (CNN) -- Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad said in a bench conference with the judge in his murder trial Wednesday that he decided to return to his court-appointed counsel because of a toothache, according to a court transcript.

Muhammad, 42, is on trial in the slaying of Dean Harold Meyers, 53, who was gunned down a year ago as he refueled his Mazda at a Sunoco gas station in Manassas, a Washington suburb in northern Virginia. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Meyers was one of 10 people killed during a series of sniper slayings last October in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., that police say were carried out by Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, now 18. Three people were wounded.

The unexpected turn-of-events occurred early in the day when Muhammad asked to speak to the judge in a bench conference, unable to be heard by the jury.

"Your honor, last night I bit down on something, and I have an abscess in my tooth," Muhammad said, according to the court transcript. "I talked to my lawyers about it. They said the only way that you would allow them to speak for me. ..."

The rest of the sentence was evidently inaudible to the court reporter, but Muhammad defense attorney Peter Greenspun finished it for him.

"The only way my lawyers will be able to speak for me is for me to forfeit my right -- I think is what he said," Greenspun said.

Muhammad said that a filling was knocked out when he was dragged out of his car when he was arrested October 24, 2002. He said that he talked to a nurse about the pain Tuesday night and that she prescribed aspirin.

"I don't take any pain medication," Muhammad said. "If I did, I would be drowsy in the courtroom."

Muhammad said he had packed tissue into the abscess to prevent air from getting into it.

Judge LeRoy Millette seemed almost eager to use the opportunity to return control of Muhammad's case to the lawyers.

"I believe that you can competently represent yourself," he said. "I think you've actually been making some points."

But, Millette said, attorneys Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro "are more effective."

"I want you to consider real carefully whether you do want to continue to represent yourself," the judge said. "I was going to ask you this even before you told me about your problem."

Millette recessed the court to give Muhammad a chance to speak with Greenspun and Shapiro.

Upon returning, assistant prosecutor Richard Conway weighed in. "If he [Muhammad] decides that they're going to re-enter the case, that's the end of it," he said.

"I know. I understand," the judge said.

Conway also attempted to cut off a possible appeal on the issue, saying prosecutors did not want Muhammad claiming in the future he was denied his right to self-representation.

"If I let them take over the case again, I'm not going to let you change again and represent yourself. ... If they take over this case, they stay as counsel the rest of the way. Do you understand that? We're not going to switch back again," Millette said to Muhammad.

"Yes, your honor," Muhammad responded.

"OK. The second question is, are you making this decision solely because of your physical problem that you have or ... because you think it's in your best interest to have them represent you?" the judge asked.

"The latter," Muhammad replied.

Muhammad rejects counsel

Muhammad took the courtroom by surprise Monday when he told Millette that he wanted to defend himself. (Discussion between Muhammad, judge, attorneys)

After the judge reluctantly agreed, the defendant made a rambling opening statement professing his innocence, and he cross-examined witnesses called by prosecutors in the first two days of the trial, including one of his alleged victims. (Muhammad's opening statement)

Malvo also appeared in court Monday, brought in by sheriff's deputies so a witness could identify he and Muhammad as being near the Meyers shooting scene shortly before.

Malvo is brought into court Wednesday to be identified by a witness.
Malvo is brought into court Wednesday to be identified by a witness.

On Wednesday, Malvo made a second appearance. Prosecutors brought him into the courtroom, outside the presence of the jury, to see if a victim of one of the shootings linked to the suspects could identify him.

"The face, his color and his physical structure is very, very similar," said Muhammad Rashid, who was wounded in front of a Brandywine, Maryland, liquor store September 15, 2002.

As Malvo left the courtroom, he made eye contact with Muhammad, who then raised his hand in a loose fist and shook it several times in Malvo's direction.

Malvo's appearance in the courtroom Wednesday came as defense attorneys tried to keep Rashid's testimony out of the trial.

His shooting was not part of the sniper spree, but it was among a series of shootings in the months before the spree that police and prosecutors have linked to Muhammad and Malvo.

Defense attorneys argued that Rashid's shooting was not vital to the case because it was unrelated to the slaying of Meyers. But after hearing his testimony outside the presence of the jury, the judge decided that it could be admitted.

Car dealer testifies

In other testimony Wednesday, Christopher Okupski, a used-car dealer from New Jersey, told the court he sold a 1990 Chevrolet Caprice to Muhammad and an acquaintance, Nathaniel Osborne, less than a month before the sniper slayings began.

Okupski testified that a large hole above the license plate was not there when he sold the car and that a panel in the trunk had been removed. The inside of the trunk had also been spray-painted, he said.

Prosecutors allege that car was used to carry out the killings, with one suspect firing from the trunk and the second behind the wheel to make a quick escape.

CNN's Jeanne Meserve, Patty Davis, Jim Spellman and Mike M. Ahlers contributed to this report.


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