LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – An attorney for a man charged with capital murder told potential jurors Monday that half their work was already done, acknowledging his client killed one soldier and wounded another during a 2009 attack at an Arkansas military recruiting center.
"This isn't about whodunit or who didn't do it," said Patrick Benca, a lawyer for Abdulhakim Muhammad. "Mr. Muhammad was the one that had his finger on the trigger."
While Benca and others on Muhammad's legal team say he is mentally ill, Muhammad and prosecutors insist he is not. The state is seeking the death penalty after Muhammad said he planned the attack in retaliation for U.S. military action in the Middle East.
About 50 potential jurors were summoned before Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright early Monday, and all but four said they knew something about the case.
"That doesn't disqualify you," said John Johnson, a deputy prosecutor. Wright placed seven in the jury box Monday and urged them not to talk, text or tweet about their experience in the courtroom. Jury selection will continue Tuesday until five more jurors, plus alternates, are selected.
On Monday, Wright excused 11 potential jurors, several of whom said they opposed the death penalty. Muhammad's defense attorneys dismissed six others, including a woman who has a son in the military. Prosecutors dismissed five.
Muhammad, 26, has acknowledged in a pair of interviews with The Associated Press that he killed Pvt. William Andrew Long, 23, and wounded Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula, then 18, while they were smoking cigarettes outside a recruiting center in a west Little Rock shopping center. The two had recently completed basic training and volunteered to work as recruiters. Neither had seen combat.
Muhammad told the AP that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan justified his actions — and made several similar claims in letters mailed to the judge from jail.
"The fact of the matter is what happen June 1, 2009 was not due to mental disease or defect as I have said before. But to the government's current war on Islam," Muhammad wrote in a letter to Wright in May.
As Johnson, the prosecutor, walked the potential jurors through the mechanics of a capital murder trial, Muhammad's eyes flit between his defense attorneys and the men and women who could decide whether he lives or dies. He remained silent save for an occasional whisper to his attorneys. At times he rocked in his chair.
Muhammad, who was born Carlos Bledsoe in Memphis, Tenn., changed his name after converting to Islam. He sought a broad platform to espouse his political beliefs, but prosecutors opted for a state trial, rather than a federal one, and Wright said early Monday that Muhammad could not serve has own attorney.
"I do not believe he's competent to represent himself," the judge said.
Muhammad claims ties to al-Qaida, but prosecutors have treated his case much like any premeditated shooting. They wouldn't agree to a plea bargain because doing so would prevent them from seeking the death penalty.
Muhammad has complained that his case was left in state court because state prosecutors have a better record of obtaining death sentences than federal ones. The U.S. has put three people to death since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, while Arkansas has executed 27 people in that time.
Muhammad moved to Arkansas in early 2009 as his father expanded the family's Memphis-based tour bus company. He converted to Islam in college.
Jeannie Nuss can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeannienuss