Law Student Sees Muhammad Defend Himself at Sniper Trial

October 24, 2003
Jennifer Wine
First-year law student Jennifer Wine lived in northern Virginia during the sniper attacks.

First-year law student Jennifer Wine got a real-world lesson in criminal law during what will likely be one of the most infamous trials of the century. Wine won one of five spots awarded to the public by lottery to attend the John Allen Muhammad trial Tuesday, the second day the defendant represented himself.

Muhammad is charged with the murder of Dean Meyers, who was shot at a Manassas gas station during a series of sniper attacks that terrorized the nation's capital and surrounding region last fall. Muhammad's alleged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, has been charged with most of the shootings and will face a separate trial.

"Overall he did a much better job than what I was thinking after reading his opening statement," said Wine, who sat 25 or 30 feet away from Muhammad. "I was just shocked by how calm and how courteous he was to people."

Wine added that she was surprised that Meyers' family was so cordial to the defense attorneys who introduced themselves to them, as well as witnesses' deference to Muhammad. "He's being courteous to them, and they're being courteous back to him."

During the morning session Wine attended, Prince William County police officer Steven Bailey testified that he had let Muhammad leave a Bob Evans Restaurant parking lot police had cordoned off soon after Meyers was shot nearby. Because people blocked in the lot were annoyed that they couldn't leave, police started letting people out without collecting names and addresses. Muhammad had told Bailey he had been motioned into the lot and was returning from a vacation. Bailey did not realize until later that police had not guided cars into the lot, and had instead prevented them from entering in order to identify potential witnesses to the crime. During his cross-examination, Muhammad pointed out that he was the only one who had offered such a story, and the officer admitted he wished he had caught on.

Although she doesn't have a special interest in criminal law, Wine felt some attachment to the sniper trial before reading about the lottery. During the sniper attacks, she was a legal assistant for a law firm in Washington, D.C., and lived in Arlington, just miles from where the Home Depot shooting took place. She remembered talking with her roommate about going to Home Depot to get bike hooks the day of the murder there. After the police shut down area highways, they had a view from their apartment of Route 50, one of the main avenues the snipers could have taken to escape. After seeing the effects of the sniper attacks on the region, "I just figured it would be exciting to go and watch the trial," she said.

Wine read about the lottery last week in the Washington Post and entered the drawing online at the City of Virginia Beach web site. She stayed with a friend in Norfolk the night before and shuttled back that afternoon for a Contracts review session. In fact, sneaking in her Contracts book at the trial gave her away as a law student, and she ended up being quoted by a Virginian-Pilot reporter.

The remaining four public spots were awarded to locals, she said, with other seats taken by the media and Dean Meyers' family. Wine said she missed the more dramatic afternoon testimony, when a man who was shot and had his laptop and money stolen (which allegedly funded the spree) was questioned by his alleged attacker. But she did see the jury's solemn reaction-with one woman crying-when prosecutors showed photos of the crime scene.

Wine said she was puzzled by the need for a librarian's testimony about a map stolen from her library that was later found by police at Bob Evans, with Muhammad's fingerprints on it. The librarian hadn't seen Muhammad or Malvo at the library and didn't know the map was stolen until recently. Throughout the morning the testimony "definitely ranged between excitement and definitely shaking off yawns," she said.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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