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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Sniper Suspect Gives Opening Statement

Aired October 20, 2003 - 13:16   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: As you know, it's the beginning of that sniper trial today in Virginia Beach, Virginia. A bit of a legal shocker. We've been getting new information by the minute here. You'll remember John Allen Muhammad and -- who operated of course with his partner -- has come forward saying he wants to represent himself. We are going to talk about that a little bit more in-depth by a criminal defense attorney coming up, but first we're going to go to our Jeanne Meserve. She just got to the camera with some developing news -- Jeanne.
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, I just ran out of the courtroom. John Muhammad spoke this morning, gave his own opening statement, talked about the truth, and said the truth is not always evident. He talked about an instance in which one of his children had been told to not take cookies out of a cookie jar. He came back to the house and found her with cookies, assumed that she was guilty, and then found from talking to other children that in fact she wasn't, that an older brother had gone and bought her cookies and brought them back. Just an illustration, he says, that what you see is not always the truth of the matter.

And he said with people's lives in the balance, with his life in the balance, theory wasn't enough. There had to be truth. He said that the evidence in this case would show that he did not have anything at all to do with these crimes. Of course, it's a bombshell. That term is overused, but it is truly appropriate here, a bombshell that John Muhammad is representing himself in this case. No hint before court began this morning this was going to happen. He made a motion, asked to represent himself. The judge brought him and all of the attorneys involved up to the bench for a long conversation.

We could hear the judge tell him, I have to tell you, I think this is a mistake. He asked him after long conversations about his education, about whether he was prepared to deal with legal proceedings. That's what you want to do. You want to represent yourself? Muhammad replied, yes, sir. And so things preceded from there.

Before we heard from Mr. Muhammad, we had a long exposition from the prosecutors in this case. They went through the crimes one by one, crimes that began before the official sniper-designated shooting spree in Montgomery County, Maryland. Went through tracing who the victims were, the circumstances of their death and the evidence that linked them to the Bushmaster rifle and to the Chevy Caprice in which Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo were arrested.

On the table, the Bushmaster rifle for the entire opening argument by the prosecution. The jury was very attentive to every word that was being said. They have the capacity to take notes during this trial. I didn't see one of them take their eyes off the presentation being made before them this morning, either by the prosecution or by John Muhammad himself.

Kyra, back to you.

PHILLIPS: You were inside the courtroom, Jeanne. You did come dashing to us with this new news.

MESERVE: Yes.

PHILLIPS: Kind of give us a feel since we can't get inside there behind the door, give us a feel for how all of the key players were reacting and facial expressions and communication that was going -- taking place.

MESERVE: Well, we couldn't see Mr. Muhammad's face while he was listening to the prosecution. We could only see the back of him. We could look over to the side and see some of the key player. The Meyers family is in the courtroom. There's some law enforcement officials, the chief of police from Prince William County, Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan. They were leaning forward. Every member of the press leaning forward, each of us hanging on to every word, especially at beginning. We were trying to figure out exactly what was going on up at the bench. Whispers began going amongst us, he want to represent himself. True amazement to everyone in the courtroom.

During the recess, I went to the prosecutor in this case, Paul Ebert, and I asked him if he had expected this. He said no. He said this was a surprise to him. After the recess, one of the additional people who came into the room was Mr. Areef, Michael Areef. He is representing Malvo, Lee Malvo, the other person who is being accused of these crimes. He's in here to listen today and glean what he can. He, too, expressed absolute surprise that this has happened -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Jeanne Meserve there in Virginia Beach. Thank you so much.

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