An interview with ‘Beltway Sniper’ lawyer Craig Cooley -- 10 years later

Posted at 1:13 AM, Nov 14, 2013
and last updated 2013-11-14 06:40:03-05

RICHMOND, Va. — Well-known but low-profile Richmond defense attorney Craig Cooley believes Lee Boyd Malvo was the first and most carefully planned victim in the 2002 “beltway” murder spree orchestrated by Malvo’s father-figure, John Allen Muhammad.

And Cooley believes - with great certainty - that the 17-year-old Malvo would’ve also become the Muhammad’s final victim, to silence him after their murders were completed.

Ten years ago this week – on November 13, 2003 – Cooley made these points during his opening arguments defending the nation’s most notorious teen killer.

So convincing were the arguments presented by Cooley and his vast team – some of them volunteers – that even the court artist’s depictions of Malvo slowly evolved from a brooding adult to a much more childlike figure.

Now, a decade later, Cooley says he’s glad he answered the call.

Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Jane Roush “called me and said she needed someone with a lot of gray hair, a lot of capital trial experience and no ego, and I assured her my lack of ego was well justified,” Cooley recalled when we visited on the anniversary of the trial opening.

It would be a bright spotlight for Craig Cooley, the quiet Richmond legend.  He had defended more than 50 potential death penalty cases when he got the call.

He knew it would take a year of he and his family’s life, with the kind of massive media coverage he preferred  to avoid.

“I’m blessed,” he said. “I married a saint 41 years ago. I discussed it with her, she said, ‘This is what you do . . . this is what you believe in . . . if not you, who?

His motivation was simple: No civilized country – in fact no other country - sanctions the execution of juveniles.

His opening statement summed up the defense for the 5-feet-3-inch teen-ager who had weighed 110 pounds: He had become the obedient, unquestioning puppet of a forceful, highly trained father figure bent on laying a trail of random bodies to screen the eventual murder of the former wife who had taken his three children away from him. At the center of the concentric circles marking the beltway murders was the southern Maryland home of the former wife.

After she was killed, Cooley argued then (and still wholeheartedly believes), Muhammad planned to murder Malvo to silence him so he could be safely reunited with his children.

“Before I entered into this case, the idea of mind control, being brainwashed, that sort of thing, I thought was mythical. But after watching what was heard in this case – hearing it from very legitimate, honest witnesses who had watched the process over some years, it was very clear to me this is exactly what occurred.”

But could they sell it to a jury and save Malvo’s life?

“I think we were absolutely worried,” Cooley recalled of the day of their opening arguments.

They had had a year to plan and collect evidence, getting help from a variety of sources across the country, including court appointed lawyers who volunteered their time to find witnesses to the transformation of Lee Malvo as he and Muhammad – a human trafficker – traveled across the country and to the Caribbean.

Lee Malvo was perfectly courteous to his defenders  – many were reminded of an American youth of 40 years ago, Cooley said.

But at first, he was no help.

“In the beginning, he would not accept any criticism of John Muhammad whatsoever,” Cooley said. There was no admission they had done anything wrong, that Muhammad had encouraged him to do anything other than what was right and proper.  “He wouldn’t be disrespectful to us, he would simply shut down.”

Part of the defense team was a Jamaican native who slowly helped Malvo emerge from the shadow of John Muhammad.

“To watch the withdrawal was very much like watching an addict withdraw from something,” Cooley said.

The teen who emerged is the real Lee Malvo, he believes. A young man who had faithfully attended church, who had to swim several creeks with his clothes piled on his head to get to his baptism. A boy who was kind and loving to other  children. (In court, a much meaner version of Malvo was presented by the prosecution.)

Cooley believes Malvo was the actual shooter in two or three of the murders, but he was right there for the rest of them.

“They were not just innocent people,” Cooley said, “they were wonderful folks who were just going about their daily routines, and out of the blue were struck down by, frankly, a madman.”

Malvo, now 28, “deals daily with the guilt of killing parents. He was raised without a father. John Muhammad became his father-figure. He now understands he created circumstances for children of these victims that put them in the same circumstances that he was in.”

Cooley keeps up with his client, visiting occasionally and corresponding regularly. He says Malvo has been in some kind of isolation or segregation since his arrest in October of 2002.

He said Malvo is a wonderful poet and sketch artist who would like to sell collection of his work to benefit the families of his victims.

Cooley notes that a year after the jury unanimously spared Malvo’s life – perhaps coincidentally - the U.S. Supreme Court ruled executing juveniles was no longer Constitutional.

He said he has always believed this is the best nation on earth.

“We are a better country,” he said. “The fact that we have eliminated the execution of juveniles elevates us all. That jury elevated us all with their unanimous decision that this was not an appropriate case to execute someone. I am very proud of being part of that, but I recognize, without a question, that I am a very small part of that.”

So says the noted defense attorney with gray hair, lots of capital trial experience and – still – little ego.