A Killer’s Mind: The Beltway Sniper and Coercion of a Minor

A Killer's Mind: The Beltway Sniper and Coercion of a Minor

Americans old enough to recall the early 2000s likely remember the events that transpired in the Washington, D.C., area in October of 2002. But who was the Beltway Sniper, and why is this case significant from a mental health standpoint? Find out why the psychological coercion tactics used by this infamous killer are so dangerous and what the outcome of the court case was.

The Beltway Sniper Case: An Overview

In October 2002, 10 people were killed and three critically injured over the course of 3 weeks by a series of sniper attacks. These attacks occurred in the Washington metropolitan area, which encompasses Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. The string of random attacks was carried out one by one, sniper-style, by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. In the United States, there are around 48,830 deaths per year due to firearms, according to the CDC.

The two shooters were ultimately arrested, charged and convicted for their crimes. John Allen Muhammad, who was in his early 40s at the time of the shootings, was sentenced to death and executed on November 10, 2009. Muhammad’s accomplice in the shootings, Lee Boyd Malvo, was only 17 years old at the time. Malvo was convicted of the crime and received the sentence of life in prison without parole in both Maryland and Virginia. As of February 2020, Malvo’s sentence in Virginia was altered to contain the possibility of parole in accordance with state laws pertaining to juvenile prisoners.

John Allen Muhammad: Background of a Killer

John Allen Muhammad received a death sentence for his crimes in 2009. However, leading up to his criminal trial, forensic psychologist Mark D. Cunningham suggested that the killer’s childhood trauma left him vulnerable to psychological issues. Cunningham was barred from testifying at Muhammad’s trial but had some insight into the murderer’s background that could explain how an individual developed such a violent nature.

In court documents, Cunningham stated that Muhammad’s childhood traumas included his mother dying of cancer, his father abandoning him and being physically beaten by his caretakers. The documents also said that Muhammad suffered from neurological abnormalities.

Leading up to the shooting rampage in 2002, Muhammad’s wife divorced him and took full custody of their children. This was yet another factor that was attributed to the killer’s state of mind when committing these horrific crimes. As he spiraled into a darker headspace, authorities believe he trained as a sniper and recruited Malvo, a teenager, to help him commit these acts.

How Was Lee Boyd Malvo Involved in the Case?

Lee Boyd Malvo was just 17 years old when he got behind a rifle and committed murder alongside John Allen Muhammad. In a 2004 article for Vanity Fair, Donovan Webster unpacks the past of Malvo, his growing up in Jamaica and what ultimately led him to this fate.

While Malvo’s parents initially seemed happy during his childhood, Webster writes that the couple grew apart when Malvo’s dad moved off the island for work, seeking higher pay to support the family. Malvo’s mother grew resentful, and ultimately their disagreements resulted in violence toward one another. Malvo’s mother, Una, left her husband and took Lee with her when he was just 5 years old.

By 1994, Lee’s mother had to take an off-island job herself for more money in Saint Martin, leaving Lee to be shuttled between friends and family. Attempts to reconnect with his father as a child were unsuccessful, leading Lee to feel abandoned by both of his parents at a young age. By 2000, Lee had moved to Antigua to attend school there and was living alone in a shack when he met John Muhammad, who was in Antigua with his son.

Muhammad took Lee under his wing and presented him to others as his own child. The specifics of their relationship were never revealed by either party, but by January of 2001, Lee Malvo was living with Muhammad and saw him as a father figure. This seems to be the beginning stages of the coercion of a minor that led to Lee’s involvement in Muhammad’s criminal activities. Friends and peers of Lee at that time recall him becoming more argumentative about religion and taking a newfound interest in guns. Lee went to the United States with Muhammad in 2001.

What Were the Psychological Coercion Tactics Used by Muhammad?

After Malvo and Muhammad were arrested, Lee Malvo told police that he pulled the trigger in the majority of the killings, taking the fall for Muhammad. According to Dewey G. Cornell, a professor at the University of Virginia and court-appointed expert, Malvo only claimed responsibility for the shootings (when he most likely only pulled the trigger in the final shooting) because of the indoctrination and brainwashing he underwent at the hands of Muhammad.

This process allegedly included firearms training, watching violent films, playing video games involving snipers and visiting impoverished areas of U.S. cities to turn Malvo against the government. The coercive persuasion from Muhammad was even more effective because, according to Cornell, Malvo was completely isolated from all of his family and friends. Muhammad’s strict control of Malvo’s activities also contributed to the brainwashing that led him to participate in the shootings.

The Legal Implications and Aftermath of the Case

The jury in Malvo’s case was shown excerpts from The Matrix, a film that Lee Malvo was forced to watch hundreds of times by Muhammad for its violent scenes, along with slips from video games used to condition Malvo. In the end, Muhammad was sentenced to death for his criminal behavior, and Malvo remains in prison with a life sentence.

Mental illness was a key aspect of both Muhammad’s and Malvo’s defenses. In the end, Muhammad’s coercion and psychopathy were not blamed on mental illness by the jury, and he was sentenced to death. Malvo’s lawyers argued that he had a mental illness that prevented him from distinguishing right from wrong. Doctor of Forensic Psychiatry Neil Blumberg told jurors that he believed Malvo met the parameters for being legally insane in the state of Virginia. This defense strategy prevented Malvo from the same harsh fate as Muhammad, landing him a life sentence that now includes parole.

Mental Health Support

If you or someone you love is struggling with mental health, don’t hesitate to seek professional support. At Restore Mental Health, our compassionate team is always ready to take your call. We offer treatment for a range of mental health conditions including schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and substance use. Contact us today to find out more.