Commonweath of Virginia v. Lee Boyd Malvo

(aka "Beltway Snipers")

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Revised/Updated Statement by Dr. Eichel, written on 22 January, 2004:

As I write this, it has been over a month since the end of what may only be Lee Malvo's first trial, Commonweath of Virginia v. Lee Boyd Malvo (a.k.a. John Lee Malvo). Lee Malvo was the teenaged half of the "Beltway snipers" (the adult perpetrator being John Muhammad, who was 42 at the time). I appeared as one of the expert mental health witnesses for the defense.

Although I had evaluated, prepared expert reports, and/or provided expert testimony on numerous civil and criminal cases (including two other cases involving murder or attempted murder), this was certainly the most publicized, and it involved one of the most heinous murder sprees in recent memory.

Although my testimony--limited by Judge Jane Marum Roush to my evaluation of Lee Malvo's dissociative disorder--was relatively brief, I served as a consultant to lead defense psychologist Dr. Dewey Cornell (and worked to a lesser degree with lead defense psychiatrist Dr. Neil Blumberg) on the core defense issues: indoctrination/coercive persuasion ("brainwashing"), dissociative disorder induced by indoctrination, and the cultic relationship between Muhammad and Malvo. My friend and colleague, Dr. Paul Martin, provided the bulk of the testimony on cults and cultic processes in general.

During the trial, I also had the honor of meeting child psychiatrist Dr. Diane Schetky, and Dr. Neil Boothby. Dr. Boothby is a Professor of Public Health at Columbia University, a consultant to the United Nations, and an expert on child soldiers. (Lee Malvo was essentially indoctrinated to be a "child soldier" in an army of two led by his commander/father/spiritual leader, John Muhammad).

Although I had many questions (and some doubts) about defending Lee, I ultimately had the time and opportunity to review everything known about his background, to listen to and thoroughly evaluate his taped "confessions," and to read the reports and notes by others who knew, or evaluated, him. On October 30, 2003, I had the opportunity to interview Lee while he was being held in the Fairfax (VA) Adult Detention Center. During that interview, I formally evaluated Lee's suggestibility/hypnotizability and dissociative tendencies.

As a result of this careful examination, I came to the conclusion that Lee Malvo was indoctrinated ("brainwashed") into his role as John Muhammad's loyal soldier. This conclusion was consistent with the results of Dr. Cornell's extensive psychological evaluation and Dr. Blumberg's psychiatric evaluation, and ultimately formed the basis for Lee's "insanity as a result of indoctrination" defense.

For those of you unfamiliar with forensic terminology, the term "insanity," when used in a criminal trial, has different meanings in different states, but it is usually not entirely synonymous with the psychiatric use of this term. (The psychiatric use of the term "insanity" almost always implies a psychotic disorder or a disorder with concurrent psychosis.)

In Virginia, legal insanity typically involves determining whether an individual accused of a crime knew right from wrong, and/or was able to form an intent to commit the crime. The "ability to form an intent" usually implies "free will" to develop and execute a plan to commit a crime. Thus, an individual with, say, schizophrenia may or may not be legally insane at the time a crime is commited, and an individual found to be legally insane may or may not suffer from a psychotic disorder.

By concluding that Lee Malvo was indoctrinated ("brainwashed") into his role as John Muhammad's loyal co-perpetrator, it was my professional opinion that Lee was not capable of freely forming an intent, and his young, budding sense of right and wrong had become thoroughly appropriated by and subsumed under John Muhammad's inverted "morality." In essence, Lee's "old" self (a highly vulnerable boy who was and is quite bright, personable and troubled by a traumatic past) became engulfed by his "new" self (he even took a new name, as many cultists do, and became "John Malvo"), a pseudoidentity that was capable of commiting horrendous crimes for the "cause" of his leader, John Muhammad. (Muhammad claimed the killings were part of a just and righteous holy war that would ultimately lead to a utopian enclave in southern Canada open only to a select group of African-Americans who had been liberated from their "slave mentality.") For procedural reasons, I was not actually able to testify to my ultimate conclusion, but rather was only allowed to testify about my conclusion that Lee had/has a dissociative disorder (not otherwise specified) as a result of extreme indoctrination.

Like many cult victims, it took many months before Lee's indoctrination began to show some cracks, and the "real" Lee Malvo could come to the surface. (Lee received no formal exit counseling or "deprogramming" from his indoctrinated state.) When I interviewed Lee, he was still showing clear signs of dissociation and what cult experts call "floating" (confirmed by formal test results), but he was also able to relate the specifics of his indoctrination and cultic relationship in a manner I have witnessed in hundreds of hours of interviewing former cultists.

I feel priveleged to offer these comments about the Malvo defense team:

My experiences with lead defense psychologist Dewey Cornell and lead defense attorneys Michael Arif and Craig Cooley were entirely positive. Dr. Cornell consistently impressed me as an ethical, critical, extraordinarily competent psychologist who was able to take an almost limitless amount of information, organize it and make meaning of it in a manner that made me proud to be in the same profession. The two lead defense attorneys, and their associates (including Mark Petrovich, who examined me on the witness stand), were inspiring. I wish anyone with negative opinions of attorneys, especially criminal defense attorneys, could have been present during my many conversations and encounters with Mssrs. Arif and Cooley. These attorneys and their associates were the complete opposite of the popular notion of the "sleazy" defense attorney who will use every trick in the book to get his/her (guilty) client off. They consistently challenged me (and all the other experts, as far as I could tell) to be completely open and forthcoming, and to seek the truth. It was fascinating to watch them become educated about cultic processes and the effects of indoctrination. My own subjective impression was that at least some of the defense attorneys were not convinced of the reality and power of indoctrination when Dr. Cornell began to formulate his conclusion. But as the evidence came in--as Lee's history became more thoroughly flushed out, as the reports from Lee's family, friends, teachers, caretakers, and especially those who witnessed Lee with John Muhammad were integrated with the hours and hours of psychological and psychiatric evaluations to form a complete picture of this tragic young man's life and psyche, I believe I saw what may have initially been a defense strategy become a firm understanding and acceptance of a most painful and difficult psychological reality. I read the media's legal analysts' assessments of the "not guilty by reason of indoctrination" defense, the ones that claimed the defense plea was really a strategy to keep Lee from being sentenced to die. That may have been initially true, for some of the attorneys, but in the month immediately preceding the trial, I believe Lee's attorneys (or some of them) experienced a shift in their thinking, a realization that this went beyond a legal stategy and was in fact a complex and difficult truth.

Lee Boyd Malvo was found guilty of murder, but based largely on our ability to at least partially convey the extent of his indoctrination, Lee was spared the death penalty. (Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft had lobbied for the snipers' first trial to be in Virginia because of its reputation for being unafraid to utilize the death penalty. John Muhammad did in fact receive the death penalty.)

I have no doubt that Lee pulled the trigger at least some of the time during the "Beltway Snipers" shooting spree in the fall of 2002. Lee admitted that much to me, and to others. However, I also have no doubt that Lee was completely and thoroughly under the control of John Muhammad, and that, like those whose lives were horribly and indiscriminately ended in Fall, 2002, he had become a tragic victim of this one man's immense and perhaps unfathomable destructiveness.


"You know some people got no choice and they can never find a voice to talk to that they can even call their own. So the first thing that they see that allows them the right to be, why they follow it. You know, it's called bad luck."

Lou Reed, from "Street Hassle", 1978

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Initial Statement by Dr. Eichel:


I have agreed to appear as an expert mental health witness in Commonweath of Virginia v. Lee Boyd Malvo (a.k.a. John Lee Malvo), one of the so-called "Beltway snipers." I will be appearing as a defense witness.

This case is, of course, receiving a great deal of attention in the national media, and the public is aware of much, but not all, of the defense's rationale and strategy. Lee Boyd Malvo, who was 17 and a legal minor at the time the murders were committed, has been accused of being the "trigger man" in the snipings, acting at the command (and, the defense is arguing, under the control) of John Lee Muhammad.

Defense attorney Craig S. Cooley has advised all experts in this case to exercise professional discretion in any public statements. I am in agreement with this advice, and consequently have decided to turn down any pretrial/presentencing interviews regarding the Malvo case.

My only statement is as follows: This is a complex and complicated case, one that will become clearer during the actual trial. Those who know me professionally and/or personally know that I have been a long-standing and committed advocate for the victims of trauma, violence and totalism. Like you, my heart goes out to the families and friends of those who were murdered. Please rest assured that I would not have agreed to be involved with this case if I did not believe, once I was able to examine the facts in the case, that Lee Malvo was also a victim in this horrific tragedy. My advice to my friends and colleagues who are following this case is to keep an open and critical mind, and to postpone your final judgment of Lee Malvo (and my involvement in his defense) until all the facts are in. Thank you for your patience and consideration.

-- Steve K. D. Eichel, Ph.D., ABPP




Courtroom Reporter Drawings by Associated Press artist Betty Wells

Commonweath of Virginia v. Lee Boyd Malvo

(aka "Beltway Snipers")