FAIRFAX, Va. - A court hearing for sniper mastermind John Allen Muhammad was delayed briefly Thursday after Muhammad wriggled out of a chain strapped around his waist.
Muhammad was placed back into full restraints without incident, but for a few minutes he was in the courtroom with a long chain gathered in his hands that authorities said was a potential weapon.
Lt. Tony Shobe, a spokesman for the Fairfax County Sheriff's Office, said deputies did not notice the missing chain when they brought Muhammad from a holding cell back to the courtroom after a 15-minute recess. Within a minute or two of court resuming, deputies noticed the chain and alerted the judge, who stopped the proceedings.
Shobe said Muhammad was still in handcuffs and leg irons, and was fully secured the entire time. The waist chain is linked to the handcuffs to keep his arms at waist level.
"Yes, he could have used the chain as a weapon, but he didn't," Shobe said. "Fortunately we have three or four very large people watching him."
When court resumed, Circuit Judge Jonathan Thacher admonished Muhammad.
"This is the one and only security violation I will tolerate," he said.
Muhammad asked to address the judge, but Thacher advised him to first talk to his lawyers. After Muhammad did so, defense lawyer Peter Greenspun said, "Mr. Muhammad would describe the circumstances differently." Greenspun declined to comment on Muhammad's actions after the hearing, citing a gag order.
This was not the first time Muhammad has engaged in behavior while in detention that authorities deemed a security risk.
Prosecutors presented testimony during his trial of bizarre behavior that may have been an aborted escape attempt while Muhammad was being held at the Prince William County Jail. Guards said they found Muhammad hiding behind a door in a locked cell block, wearing nothing but a bed sheet.
Muhammad was convicted last fall and sentenced to death for one of 10 fatal sniper shootings in the Washington, D.C., area in October 2002. Prosecutors are putting him on trial for another killing, saying a second death sentence is needed in case the first is overturned on appeal.
During Thursday's hearing, Thacher rejected defense requests to bar prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr. from trying the second Muhammad case.
Muhammad's attorneys argued that Horan should be removed from the case because of arguments he made while trying Muhammad's accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo. Muhammad's lawyers said that during the Malvo trial, Horan made such a strong case that Malvo acted independently in the shootings that they actually want Horan as a defense witness.