I remember it well. My eldest daughter was in graduate school in Washington DC. We talked about precautions she should take when fueling her car or crossing a parking lot. This did not have to do with a rash of purse-snatching. No, a sniper was shooting people with deadly accuracy and frightening regularity in suburban Virginia and Maryland.
We were greatly relieved when John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo were captured while sleeping in their car at a rest area in Maryland and the killing spree was ended. I followed the trial closely enough to know that Malvo got a life sentence while Muhammed was sentenced to death (and has since been executed). I remember hearing that Malvo was spared due in large measure to how young he was and the evidence that Muhammed exercised a controlling influence over the teenager.
Now ten years later, Malvo spoke to a Washington Post reporter from Red Onion State Prison. Today’s Post carried the story as well as an hour and fifteen minutes of the recorded phone interview between Malvo and the reporter, Josh White. Here is the link.
Prison provides plenty of opportunity for reflection and analysis. Malvo spends 23 hours a day in a segregation cell. He has no physical contact with other prisoners and is allowed one hour a day to shower, exercise and perform menial tasks outside his cell. Malvo has clearly thought a lot about his life, his association with Muhammed and the people he killed.
“I was a monster. If you look up the definition, that’s what a monster is. I was a ghoul. I was a thief. I stole people’s lives. I did someone else’s bidding just because they said so. . . . There is no rhyme or reason or sense.”
How did Malvo fall so completely under Muhammed’s influence? Why was he willing to do literally anything Muhammed told him to do? In the recorded interview, Malvo says this: “He gave me his time.” Not once or twice does Malvo emphasize this. He says it three times.
Not surprisingly, Malvo’s home life in Antigua was not good and there was apparently no meaningful relationship with his father. Muhammed stepped in and filled that role. To a kid starved for a father’s attention, Muhammed was a savior. But as Muhammed’s anger and bitterness over losing access to his own children increased, his manipulative control over the impressionable Malvo also increased. The young teen became completely immersed in Muhammed’s desire for revenge.
“I was unable to distinguish between Muhammad the father I had wanted and Muhammad the nervous wreck that was just falling to pieces. He understood exactly how to motivate me by giving approval or denying approval. It’s very subtle. It wasn’t violent at all. It’s like what a pimp does to a woman.”
Is Malvo sorry for what he did? Stanton Samenow, the clinical psychologist who specializes in the study of criminal behavior (and about whom I wrote in an earlier blog), testified as an expert witness for the prosecution at Malvo’s trial. Later, in prison, Malvo watched an educational television program in which Samenow described how the actions of a criminal not only impact the victim’s family but also the victim’s neighbors, community and anyone else the victim knows. Absorbing this insight, Malvo said:
“Once I began to list the victims for every single possible crime that I could think of, the number, quickly, it was like multiplying by seven. It just exponentially grew. The enormity of it. When you’re in the midst of doing the shooting, that was my sole focus. I didn’t give it thought. . . . You never get a grasp on what exactly you actually did and what the ramifications were for others.”
In my experience at Canaan, I rarely hear an inmate acknowledge the impact of his criminal activity. It is a curious and troubling omission. I neither desire nor expect the men with whom I work to wallow in guilt. Still, in all the one-on-one conversations I have had, as well as countless small group discussions, it almost never comes up. In my work at a women’s substance abuse rehab center, however, I see the victims of drug trafficking everyday. The road of recovery and return to a useful and productive life is long and arduous. I wonder if the effort to help inmates get in touch with the impact of their crimes needs more attention.
In the recorded interview, Malvo spoke about forgiveness. I am “working on forgiving myself,” he said, and then added, “There are different layers” to the process. Indeed, working through forgiveness, whether of self or others, is like peeling an onion. Every layer of onion skin brings a pungent scent. So, too, with forgiving. Just when we think we have finally worked through it, something happens to peel back a new layer and, once again, we are back in the middle of the process.
Finally, the Post article included Malvo’s own assessment of how the families of his victims should seek to move forward, realizing that his own apologies and remorse will never be sufficient:
“We can never change what happened. There’s nothing that I can say except don’t allow me and my actions to continue to victimize you for the rest of your life. It may sound cold, but it’s not. It’s the only sound thing I can offer. You and you alone have the power to control that. And, you take the power away from this other person, this monster, and you take control. . . .
“Don’t allow myself or Muhammad to continue to make you a victim for the rest of your life,” Malvo said. “It isn’t worth it.”