Experts Testify About Mental State of Young Sniper Suspect

The trial of Lee Malvo, the younger suspect in last fall's sniper shootings, moved into a new and crucial phase today, as experts in mental health tried to persuade the jury that he was insane at the time of the crimes.

A neuropsychologist described Mr. Malvo as cheerful and goofy in a recent interview, an attitude he said was "quite out of step with the seriousness of the situation." An expert on deprogramming members of cults suggested that the relationship between Mr. Malvo and John Muhammad, who has been sentenced to death for his role in the shootings, was a "one-on-one cult." A social worker likened the two men to characters in "The Matrix," the science fiction movie.

Robert F. Horan Jr., the lead prosecutor, argued that none of the experts the defense has presented or proposes to present can say that Mr. Malvo was insane in a legal sense.

"We have an insanity defense that's like a puff of smoke," he said. "There is no real claim that he was insane under Virginia law."

The most defense experts have concluded in their pretrial reports, Mr. Horan said, is that Mr. Malvo's ability to tell right from wrong was "severely impaired." That is not enough, he said, and Judge Jane Marum Roush, in a comment from the bench, agreed.

She said the insanity defense required proof that Mr. Malvo was categorically incapable of making the distinction.

"I imagine someone is going to have to say at some point that the indoctrination in this case was so severe that it made Mr. Malvo unable to know right from wrong," she said. "I would be sorely disappointed if there is no such testimony."

"No more than I would be," said Craig S. Cooley, one of the Mr. Malvo's lawyers. Mr. Cooley added that defense experts will ultimately opine that he was indeed insane in that sense.

But today's testimony did not go that far.

Mr. Malvo's IQ, at 98, is normal, said David Schretlen, who teaches neuropsychology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and spent a day administering tests to him in August. But the speed at which Mr. Malvo processes information and his manual dexterity, Professor Schretlen said, were abnormally low.

More striking yet, he continued, was Mr. Malvo's lighthearted attitude during the interview. Mr. Malvo appeared, he said, "goofy" and "strangely cheerful." That same attitude was apparent in court, with Mr. Malvo, in a grey-ribbed sweater over a white shirt, sharing jokes and laughing with the courtroom deputies who guard him.

"He did describe himself as quite socially alienated, detached from other people," Professor Schretlen added. "He described himself as hypervigilant, suspicious of the motives of other people."

Paul R. Martin, an expert on cults, had a rocky time on the stand, as Judge Roush sustained many of the prosecution's objections to his testimony. Mr. Martin has not interviewed Mr. Malvo and sought to speak about his own seven-year experience in what he called a cult and about his work in deprogramming others who had been brainwashed.

Mr. Horan objected. "There is no evidence of a cult in this case," he said.

Mr. Martin disagreed. "We call the situation a cult of one," he said.

Thomas Walsh, a Malvo lawyer, argued that Mr. Martin should be allowed to testify.

"His testimony is imperative," he said.

"It may be imperative," Judge Roush said. "I'm just trying to decide if it's admissible."

Defense lawyers withdrew Mr. Martin from the stand and said they would ask him a different line of questions later in the case.

Carmeta Albarus, a social worker, interviewed Mr. Malvo for 70 hours over the last eight months. She testified that Mr. Malvo was initially very protective of Mr. Muhammad, whom he called his father.

"They want to use me to kill my Dad, and it will not happen" Ms. Albarus recalled Mr. Malvo saying.

Mr. Malvo also said, to Ms. Albarus and others, that his life and views can be understood by watching "The Matrix." Ms. Albarus did so.

"I saw Neo as Lee," she said. "I saw Morpheus as Muhammad." She was referring to the characters played by Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne.

"Neo was `the One,' who was going to contribute significantly to changing the system," she said. "Morpheus was to me the authoritative figure and the mentor."

Mr. Horan objected frequently throughout the day, saying that evidence about Mr. Malvo's background and psychological problems are being introduced in the wrong phase of the case. The jury is now considering his guilt. If Mr. Malvo is convicted, so-called mitigation evidence may be introduced by the defense in an attempt to convince the jury to spare his life.

"They're trying to use mitigation evidence on an insanity defense," Mr. Horan said.

In the morning, Judge Roush entered what she called a gag order, prohibiting all comments from the lawyers in the case to the press and ending the daily news conferences the defense lawyers have held after court.

The ruling was prompted by the publication of a letter from Mr. Malvo to a niece of Mr. Muhammad in today's issue of The Washington Post. The letter, which Judge Roush had declined to admit into evidence on Wednesday, was written last summer, months before the shootings started. "I'm perceived as a walking time bomb waiting to explode," Mr. Malvo wrote, according to The Post.

Prosecutors asked Judge Roush to question the lawyers in the case about whether they had been the source of the letter. Three of the lead lawyers on the two sides denied involvement.

Michael S. Arif, a Malvo lawyer, declined to answer.

"I will not comment," he said. "I think the inquiry is inappropriate."

Judge Roush said the defense lawyers' out-of-court statements were improper.

"I think it's an attempt to reach the jurors or the jurors' families," she said. "I'm putting an end to these press conferences."