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Muhammad blames toothache for change in representation

From Jim Spellman
and Mike M. Ahlers

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CNN's Jeanne Meserve on sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad's decision to reinstate his attorneys.
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CNN's Jeffrey Toobin on Muhammad's earlier decision to represent himself.
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Interactive: The Muhammad jury 

• Read the indictment: Virginia. v. Muhammad (FindLaw, PDF)external link
• Order changing venue: Virginia v. Muhammad (FindLaw, PDF)external link
John Allen Muhammad

VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia (CNN) -- A toothache changed the course of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad's trial Wednesday.

In the third consecutive day of high drama and unusual twists, Muhammad agreed to return control of his case to his court-appointed counsel after he complained of a toothache that prevented him from speaking normally. (More on Wednesday's proceedings)

This turn-of-events occurred at the beginning of the day, when Muhammad asked to speak to the judge in a bench conference, out of the hearing of the jury.

"Your Honor, last night I bit down on something, and I have an abscess in my tooth," Muhammad said, according to a court transcript obtained by CNN. "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 Oct. 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 added, attorneys Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro "are more effective."

"I wanted you to think again about whether you want to continue to represent yourself."

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

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

Upon returning, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney 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 concurred.

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.

"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.

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