NEW YORK – A prosecutor and a defense attorney agreed Tuesday that a Bangladeshi immigrant detonated a pipe bomb last year in a crowded subway corridor near Times Square, but they asked a federal jury to choose between conflicting accounts of why he did it - either as an act of terror or one of personal desperation.
In opening statements at the trial of Akayed Ullah, prosecutor Rebekah Donaleski described the would-be suicide bomber as a homegrown terrorist who was radicalized by Islamic State group propaganda on the internet. She said the device, which was loaded with screws as shrapnel, was meant to cause death and destruction during the morning rush.
Authorities say lives were spared when the bomb Ullah had duct-taped to his chest - triggered by a nine-volt battery in his pocket - didn't fully explode, leaving him the only one seriously injured. But Donaleski said Ullah's intent was clear.
"He designed it. He built it. ... He picked the time. He picked the location," the prosecutor said. His goal, she added, was "to terrorize Americans in the name of ISIS."
Defense attorney Julia Gatto said in her opening that there was no proof Ullah took any direction from the Islamic State or had contact with any of its members urging an attack.
"We're not going to ask you to excuse his conduct," Gatto told jurors. But she added that the government had "overreached" by charging her client with using a weapon of mass destruction, providing material support to a terrorist organization and other serious charges with maximum penalties ranging from 20 years to life in prison.
Ullah, 28, was "a deeply troubled young man who wanted to take his own life" to send a message about the mistreatment of Muslims, she said.
Prosecutors have described the evidence against Ullah as overwhelming. They say it includes admissions made to police after his arrest, an analysis of his computer showing he researched how to make a bomb and a Facebook posting he made while riding in the subway to Manhattan from Brooklyn on the morning of the attack that read, "Trump you failed to protect your nation."
On Monday, the jury was shown another key piece of evidence: a security video showing Ullah walking through the passageway before there's a flash that caused panicked pedestrians to flee in all directions. As the smoke clears, he's seen alone and flat on his back, mostly motionless.
The Dec. 11 blast was the second lone-wolf terror attack on the city in a matter of weeks. Last Halloween, a man in a rented truck mowed down cyclists and pedestrians on a crowded bike path near the World Trade Center, killing eight people.
The truck attack defendant, Sayfullo Saipov, is expected to go to trial next year, also in federal court in Manhattan. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.