Trial Delayed for Man Accused of U.S. Soldier's Death
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- A judge agreed Tuesday to postpone a trial until July for a man who said his desire to avenge the death of Muslims at the hands of U.S. soldiers led him to kill a soldier at a military recruiting center in Arkansas.
Abdulhakim Muhammad, 30, is charged with capital murder in the slaying of Army Pvt. William Long in June 2009, a killing that Muhammad said he planned to be the first in a series of attacks.
Police arrested him before he could make it out of the city.
Muhammad was to have been tried next week, but prosecutors didn't contest defense attorney Patrick Benca's request for more time to gather evidence, which would require overseas travel. Muhammad spent time in Yemen, from which he was deported in 2009.
After his arrest, Muhammad told The Associated Press he shot Long and had plotted to kill other soldiers. He made similar detailed statements to authorities.
Sheriff's deputies escorted Muhammad into court and two of them stayed on either side of him throughout the brief hearing. Muhammad, clad in a blue jail jumpsuit and shackled at his wrists and ankles, did not speak during the proceeding. He was also silent when he was led out of the courthouse.
After Benca asked Circuit Judge Herb Wright for more time, Chief Deputy Prosecutor John Johnson told the judge he would not object.
Wright set July 18 for the trial to begin and admonished both sides to be ready.
"I expect him to be tried on that date," Wright said.
Muhammad has expressed frustration with the pace of the proceedings. At a hearing in December, told the judge he wanted to plead guilty. That isn't an option because prosecutors are seeking execution as a possible sentence. Arkansas law requires a trial in capital cases.
Muhammad has been found mentally fit for trial in two examinations at the State Hospital, but the defense has left open the possibility of conducting its own, more detailed, mental evaluation.
Wright also granted a prosecution request, with no objection from Benca, to interview some witnesses via video link. Among the witnesses are soldiers who have deployed to Afghanistan, for whom it would be impractical to travel for depositions and trial testimony.
Wounded in the attack was Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula, who was outside with Long on a smoke break when Muhammad opened fire on them. The two had just finished boot camp and were pulling duty at the recruiting center before being sent on their first combat mission.
Shortly after the shooting, Little Rock police pulled over Muhammad on a freeway. Inside his SUV were weapons, food and water to sustain him through his planned rampage that he told officials would have taken him to several cities.
Muhammad's defense has worked to limit the release of information about the case for fear of tainting the pool of potential jurors. Some defense filings have been submitted under seal. Benca explained that the documents reveal trial strategy.
Prosecutors have not backed off their intention to seek the death penalty for Muhammad, a native of Memphis, Tenn., who briefly worked in Little Rock in his family's tour bus business after returning from Yemen. Muhammad, who changed his name from Carlos Bledsoe, has tried to fire Benca and Memphis.-based attorney Claiborne H. Ferguson
Muhammad's family in Memphis is paying Ferguson's fees, but not his expenses. The bill for expenses goes to the Arkansas Public Defender, which fought a months-long court battle in the hope it would not have to cover those costs.
Ultimately, the Arkansas Supreme court ruled that the commission had to pay the expenses. Benca cited the lengthy delay in his pleadings before Wright and said his office still needs to travel to several countries and try to reconstruct a federal investigation into Muhammad's dealings.
Benca said in court papers that the federal government won't release its findings regarding Muhammad and Wright has denied Benca's request to order the FBI to provide the information.
Wright also set a series of August trial dates for other charges pending against Muhammad for alleged attacks and threats again jail guards. How to proceed in those cases will likely be decided after the outcome of the capital murder trial is decided.