LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A man who killed one Arkansas soldier and wounded another — an act he called retribution for the deaths of Muslims abroad — took an unexpected plea deal Monday that abruptly ended his murder trial and spared him the death penalty.
Abdulhakim Muhammad has repeatedly said he drove up to a Little Rock, Ark., recruiting station, drew an assault rifle and fired on the two uniformed soldiers. On Monday, Muhammad stood before a judge and once more admitted to the shooting that killed Pvt. William Andrew Long and wounded Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula.
The judge then sentenced Muhammad to life in prison without parole for capital murder, with 11 more life sentences on the remaining charges and an additional 180 years in prison.
In exchange for Muhammad's plea, prosecutors could not pursue the death penalty.
Muhammad tried to plead guilty before the trial but was refused. Arkansas law requires a defendant to be tried if lethal injection is a sentencing option, lest the state grant a suicide request.
The sixth day of the trial was delayed Monday morning as lawyers on both sides huddled about a deal. Prosecutors said it was the first time Muhammad's attorneys approached them with a plea deal in writing.
Prosecutors consulted with the Longs and Ezeagwulas, who agreed to the plea deal after discussions behind closed doors.
Attorneys for Muhammad, who was born Carlos Bledsoe in Memphis, Tenn. and changed his name after converting to Islam, have argued that their client is delusional. A defense psychiatrist testified during the trial that Muhammad believes he's being persecuted due to his faith. Prosecutors planned to present their own psychiatrist, who found Muhammad free of mental defect or disease, as a rebuttal witness.
Long's father, Daris, said he was told defense attorneys would try to discredit the state's psychiatrist. And if the jury believed the defense instead, Muhammad might one day go free.
"If he goes to the same hospital that said he was sane to begin with, they could say he's sane and he walks," Long said.
The plea deal also quashes years of potential appeals that likely would have followed a guilty conviction and death sentence.
Still, both the Longs and Ezeagwulas on Monday questioned the lack of federal charges in the case against a self-professed jihadist.
"I'm not going to say (Muhammad) should be put to death, but I feel like the federal government should step in and do something about it," Ezeagwula's mother said.
Cherith Beck, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, declined to comment.
Prosecutor Larry Jegley said he didn't encourage the families to take or leave the plea deal. Instead, prosecutors answered questions and let the Longs and Ezeagwulas decide.
"I don't know that I'd be a good enough person to do that if I were in their shoes," he said.
Jegley said the trial allowed prosecutors to get the maximum sentence, aside from the death penalty.
"I'm proud of every single tax dollar that I spend on seeking justice," Jegley said when asked about the costs of the trial.
The state will pay for many of Muhammad's legal costs, though it wasn't immediately clear how much that will be. Under questioning by the prosecutors, the defense team's mental expert, Dr. Shawn Agharkar, said he charges $350 per hour and logged between 100 and 120 hours on Muhammad's case, totaling between $35,000 and $42,000. The state picks up that tab.
One of Muhammad's attorneys, Claiborne Ferguson, said he was pleased with the plea deal.
"In a case as horrific as this, any time you can walk out of court with a life sentence is a good day," said Ferguson, a Memphis, Tenn.-based attorney.
Muhammad, 26, came back to the courtroom about 1 p.m. Monday. His family stayed outside while he entered his plea, though the Long and Ezeagwula families watched.
Two armed sheriff's deputies stood behind Muhammad as Pulaski County Judge Herbert Wright read the charges against him: capital murder, attempted capital murder and 10 gun-related counts. Muhammad stood without handcuffs or shackles.
"Are you pleading guilty because you are guilty?" Wright asked.
"Yes," Muhammad replied.
The judge dismissed the jury. Then, family members of the soldiers spoke in court after prosecutors accepted the plea.
Ezeagwula's mother, Sonja Ezeagwula, looked directly at Muhammad's family members who had entered the courtroom to watch the plea. She said her son's life had been changed forever by the shooting, but offered the Bledsoes a bit of empathy.
"I am so sorry for the choice that your son decided to make," she said, though it wasn't clear whether she meant Muhammad's decision to shoot her son or accept the plea deal. She wiped her nose with a tissue as she returned to her seat.
Muhammad's family, who entered the courtroom after his guilty plea, left shortly afterward without speaking to reporters.
After converting to Islam in college, Muhammad traveled to Yemen, a country suspected of providing sanctuary to Islamic terrorists. He overstayed his visa and he was deported back to the U.S.
In media interviews and court documents, Muhammad tried to frame the shootings as part of a war he had declared on the United States. He claimed to have ties to al-Qaida, but it's unclear if that's true or if he just says he does. His defense attorneys and his father, Melvin Bledsoe, have consistently argued that Muhammad's claims were just the delusions of someone unfit to stand trial for murder.
"Anyone who watches him speak or reads those letters that he's been writing knows that something is not right in his head," Melvin Bledsoe said in an interview before the trial.
Muhammad and investigators said he drove up to a military recruiting station in Little Rock in 2009, where two soldiers — Long, 23, and Ezeagwula, then 18 — were smoking cigarettes outside. They'd recently completed basic training and had volunteered to work as recruiters. Neither had seen combat. Muhammad fired an assault rifle, killing Long and wounding Ezeagwula.
Police stopped Muhammad moments later on a highway that would have taken him to Memphis, Tenn., where he lived until he moved to Little Rock. Officers found more weapons and ammunition in his truck, along with a stash of bottled water and food. He told authorities he would have killed more soldiers if he could have.
Jeannie Nuss can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeannienuss