NEW YORK – An arts student accused of slashing a Muslim taxi driver's neck has been indicted on hate-crime charges, prosecutors said Monday as the student's lawyer lashed out at media interest in a case that comes amid debate over attitudes about Muslims and a plan to build a mosque near ground zero.
Michael Enright, the 21-year-old accused of telling the driver to "consider this a checkpoint" before allegedly stabbing him last week, waived his right to be in court as his indictment was announced Monday. He was being held without bail in a psychiatric ward until an arraignment next month on charges of attempted murder and assault, both as hate crimes.
Authorities said Enright, who traveled to Afghanistan last spring with a group to promote interfaith understanding, uttered an Arabic greeting before making his "checkpoint" remark and attacking driver Ahmed H. Sharif with a folding knife Aug. 24. Police have said Enright was drunk.
Sharif, who is from Bangladesh, was wounded in the face and neck but survived. He has said he has no doubt the attack was fueled by anti-Muslim bias.
The allegations have mystified some who know Enright, a senior at the School of Visual Arts who lives with his parents in suburban Brewster, N.Y. He had volunteered with an interfaith group that helped pay to send him to Afghanistan as part of a video project for his school. As part of the work, Enright spent time embedded with U.S. troops.
When arrested, Enright was carrying two notebooks that described his experiences in Afghanistan, along with an empty bottle of scotch, police have said.
Enright's lawyer, Lawrence Fisher, declined to comment on the charges.
But he lambasted unspecified reporters for attempting to visit Enright in custody and raised the "heinous and egregious" prospect that journalists might have peeked into a prior Enright lawyer's file when it was inadvertently left for a time on a courthouse bench last week.
Enright has refused to speak with reporters, and Fisher said he might ask a judge to bar media representatives from trying to visit the student.
"I don't think that is really an acceptable practice," he said. A judge noted his remarks but took no action.
Fisher declined to be more specific about the basis for his concerns about the file, and Enright's prior attorney didn't immediately return a phone call Monday evening.
Enright's arrest came amid an emotional, worldwide discussion of the planned Islamic center and mosque two blocks from the World Trade Center site. Supporters see the mosque as a monument to religious freedom; opponents call it an affront to the memory of the nearly 2,800 people killed by Muslim extremists in the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Muslims have been worshipping at the Islamic center site since last year, but it got new attention recently after developers sought to move ahead on an expansion that would include a community center.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who supports the proposal, has linked the furor over the mosque proposal to the cab driver's stabbing.
"This should never have happened and hopefully won't happen again," Bloomberg said at a news conference with Sharif last week. "Hopefully, people will understand that we can have a discourse."
If convicted, Enright could face up to 25 years in prison.