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The Matrix defense

This week, accused D.C. sniper Lee Malvo may become the latest in a string of criminal defendants to plead not guilty by reason of "The Matrix"

JOSH COOKE DOESN'T REMEMBER what he was thinking at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 17, when he went up to his room after eating dinner with his parents. He remembers what he was listening to on his headphones -- "Bodies," by metal drones Drowning Pool -- and what he did. "I just kinda looked over at my `Matrix' poster," he says, "and then I looked over at my gun."

The 19-year-old donned combat boots and a black jacket -- like Neo, the hero of the 1999 movie and its sequels. He filled his pockets with shotgun shells. Then he picked up the 12-gauge he'd bought because it looked like the one in the poster of his favorite movie, and he marched downstairs. "I guess you know the rest," he says.

When the police arrived at the house on Adel Road in Oakton, Va., just south of D.C., they found Cooke's parents dead in the basement and Cooke waiting calmly in the driveway. And when Cooke was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder, he became the third killer in the United States since the release of the original movie to consider pleading not guilty by reason of "The Matrix."

A few months before last Wednesday's release of the final installment of the trilogy, "The Matrix Revolutions," Warner Bros. Pictures issued a statement denying any tie between real-world violence and the virtual violence of the "Matrix" movies: "Any attempt to link these crimes with a motion picture . . . is disturbing and irresponsible."

Yet criminals themselves keep making the connection. When Lee Boyd Malvo, teen half of the alleged D.C. sniper duo, goes on trial for murder in Chesapeake, Va., tomorrow, his attorney confirms that he too will weave "The Matrix" into his insanity defense. Malvo told FBI agents that they should "watch `The Matrix"' if they wanted to understand him, and jailers found lines of dialogue from the film scribbled on paper in his cell. Even the Columbine killers were "Matrix" fans.

On one level, "The Matrix" and cases like Malvo's and Cooke's are simply the latest chew-toys in a decades-long debate over the effects of movie and video-game violence. The Cooke case has attracted fierce advocates. University of Michigan psychology professor Brad Bushman, among the nation's leading experts on violent media and aggression, volunteered to testify on Cooke's behalf. "I've looked at 287 different studies," insists Bushman, "and they all show that violent media definitely increase aggressive behavior." On the other side is Robert F. Horan Jr., Commonwealth's Attorney for Fairfax County, who will also be prosecuting Lee Malvo. "How many million people have seen this movie," he asks rhetorically, "and how many have committed murder?"

But the "Matrix" trilogy might be more than a mere scapegoat. The premise of the movies is that the so-called real world is an illusion created by an evil computer. Most of its inhabitants dream away their lives on a false diet of prefab experiences, which they are force-fed through a cord at the back of the skull. Neo (the black-clad hero played by Keanu Reeves) and his friends are the only humans who've unplugged the cord and kickboxed, shotgunned, and Uzi-ed their way out of the Matrix.

It's reality-itself-as-conspiracy, a worldview with a natural appeal to the alienated, the paranoid, and the otherwise unbalanced. "The concept behind the movie isn't new," offers Dr. John Kennedy, director of the University of Cincinnati's Institute of Law and Psychiatry. "But there may be a certain group of individuals who wouldn't have heard about the concept except for the movie, who are ripe for hearing that and running with it. They're people whose lives are so fractured or without meaning that `The Matrix' is a way to explain that without saying, `I'm sick,' or, `I'm different.' It's a much more soothing explanation than admitting you've got a problem."

Kennedy's theory is borne out by the stories of the two killers who've already pled not guilty by reason of "The Matrix." In May 2000, Vadim Mieseges, a 27-year-old Swiss exchange student and former mental patient, confessed to skinning and dismembering his landlady and stashing her torso in a dumpster in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The reason, he said, was that she was emitting "evil vibes" and he was afraid of being "sucked into the Matrix." A judge accepted his plea of insanity, and the case never went to trial. His preexisting paranoia, it seems, had turned lethal under assault from crystal meth and "The Matrix."

More than two years later, on July 27, 2002, 36-year-old bartender Tonda Lynn Ansley walked up to her landlady, Sherry Lee Corbett, on a street in Hamilton, Ohio and shot her three times with a handgun. Ansley claimed that Corbett and three other would-be victims, including Ansley's husband, had been controlling her mind and making her have "dreams that I've found out aren't really dreams."

Ansley insisted the murder was justified because, as she explained in a statement filed with the court, "they commit a lot of crimes in `the Matrix' . . . That's where you go to sleep at night and they drug you and take you somewhere else." A judge approved Ansley's insanity plea this past May 13, two days before the premiere of "The Matrix Reloaded."

But Josh Cooke's attempt to blame his actions on "The Matrix" met with skepticism from the start. His attorney, Rachel Fierro, filed a motion this April that claimed Cooke "harbored a bona fide belief that he was living in the virtual reality of `The Matrix' at the time of the alleged offenses." It was a tip-off that Fierro planned to pursue an insanity plea. Even the defendant had his doubts, as he now admits. "It's both right and wrong," he says of Fierro's take on his state of mind. "I told her it felt like I was in the Matrix after I did it. The murder didn't seem real."

But Fairfax County's Robert Horan was more interested in the far from delusional 911 calls that Cooke made within minutes of the murder. "I know I'm going to get the [expletive] death penalty for this [expletive]," Cooke tells a dispatcher. There's no mention of living in a movie.

In June, Fierro ditched plans for an insanity defense. Cooke entered a straightforward plea of guilty, which he says was his own idea. "I wanted to take responsibility for what I had done."

As the investigation progressed, Josh had begun to look more and more like a suburban punk. He and his sister Tiffany had been abandoned by their real parents and adopted by the Cookes. He had no psychiatric history, and he'd been raised since age 5 in a stable, religious home. Josh claimed physical abuse by his adoptive parents, but Tiffany wrote a letter to the court denying it. Paul and Margaret Cooke were both graduates of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and card-carrying members of Washington's black aristocracy.

But after Cooke entered his guilty plea, he got two surprises. First, adoption records revealed that both his biological parents had suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, a heritable condition. Then, at last, Cooke got to see a shrink.

When the sentencing hearing arrived Oct. 1, after Fierro entered evidence that Cooke was obsessed with "The Matrix" and played violent video games six hours a day, and after Brad Bushman talked about what that might do to someone, clinical psychologist David A. Shostak gave his diagnosis. Cooke suffered from "simple" schizophrenia, whatever its origin. "The simple schizophrenic," Shostak explained, "can describe the outside world, but when you ask, `What does that mean to you?', he's quite vacant. . .. People are scarcely real to him."

The judge sentenced Cooke to 40 years, but the implications of Shostak's testimony were clear: Like the other "Matrix" killers, Cooke found the real world an alien conspiracy governed by mysterious rules. To Cooke, the news came as a relief. "I've always felt different," he confirms, and now he knows why.

In person at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center, in a cinderblock visitors' room the day after his sentencing, Josh Cooke is about as threatening as a churchmouse. Jut-jawed, muscled, and 6-foot-2, he could fill the tiny cubicle if he wanted, but he's too meek and eager to be liked. It's easy to believe Cooke when he claims he's a nonviolent person -- a polite, helpful, devout Christian who'd never even balled a fist before Feb. 17.

Cooke, now 20, says he spent his life in his upstairs bedroom. Friendless and bullied throughout childhood, he dove into movies and video games. "Any violent video game you can think of," he confesses, "I played it." And he watched "The Matrix." He had to buy a second copy of the video after he wore the first one out rerunning favorite fight scenes. He hung the "Matrix" poster on his wall and started dressing like Neo, even buying a long black trenchcoat."

I thought, `Wouldn't it be cool if that was real? What if we were in the Matrix?' . . . When I would watch Keanu Reeves shooting people. . ., I remember thinking, `That's me.' I kind of put myself in that position." His obsession only intensified after he flunked out of Virginia State University in 2002 and went back home to live with his folks.

The disconnect David Shostak described is palpable in talking to Cooke, no matter how sincere he tries to be. He doesn't understand the impression he makes, as he proves at the end of a long, graphic description of the murder. "Sometimes," he concludes, "when I get under the covers and it's real dark, I think about when I shot my Mom in the face and I physically shake." He stops and apologizes. "I hope I'm not rambling on." He's not being sarcastic.

Cooke is also out of touch with why he did what he did. He guesses maybe he was angry, and agrees with Bushman's testimony that the movies and video games stoked that anger, but he concedes it must've been more than that. "It's so hard to explain. So many things were building up. . .. This thing that happened, I just exploded like a time bomb."

At the hearing, Shostak had given a better "why" than Cooke will ever muster himself. Cooke had flunked out of college and been rejected by the Marine Corps. He had failed at life, and was committing suicide by proxy. "Rather than destroy the self," testified Shostak, "he said, `Let me destroy the mirror."'

Outside the courtroom, Shostak suggests that Cooke was always headed toward an explosion. "Would it have happened if he hadn't had access to [violent media]? I can't say. Did it make it more likely? There's a good chance. But it was in combination with many other very potent variables."

So the film was only one factor among many, from biology to bullying to the fuzzy eyechart that kept Cooke out of the Marines -- and maybe the info about Lee Malvo that he'd downloaded to his hard drive not long before Feb. 17. Just as in the Tonda Lynn Ansley and Vadim Mieseges cases, "The Matrix" provided Cooke with a narrative but not a motive. In the end, it hadn't caused murder.

Meanwhile, however, as Cooke waits to be sent downstate, the parade of "Matrix"-obsessed offenders continues. In July, 18-year-old Matthew Lovett was arrested before he and two cronies could launch a Columbine-style assault on their New Jersey hometown. Lovett liked to call himself Neo, and after watching "The Matrix Reloaded" gushed into his diary, "I have a whole new reason to do this now."

The most famous "Matrix" fan, Lee Malvo, lives downstairs from Cooke in the Fairfax Detention Center. Unlike Cooke's lawyers, Malvo's lawyers plan to follow through with a full-fledged insanity defense, and lead counsel Craig Cooley confirms that "The Matrix" will be mentioned during the trial. The lawyers intend to argue that Malvo was brainwashed by his surrogate father, alleged partner-in-crime John Allen Muhammad -- perhaps they'll note that the "Matrix" lines Malvo scribbled in his cell were spoken by Neo's own surrogate father, Morpheus.

But co-counsel Michael Arif says, "We're not on the `Matrix' bandwagon." When he and Cooley do cite pop culture in the courtroom, he says, they'll spend most of their time talking about another form of entertainment dear to both Josh Cooke and Lee Malvo: violent video games. Like Cooke, Malvo was good at first-person shooter games, especially the Xbox hit "Halo." He was introduced to them by Muhammad.

"There's some evidence," claims Arif, "that Muhammad used them for training purposes."

Mark Schone is a senior contributing writer at Spin Magazine.

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