LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A convert to Islam who wanted a big stage to espouse his political beliefs won't be able to speak directly to jurors after a judge ruled he can't serve as his own attorney during a murder trial for the fatal shooting of a soldier outside a Little Rock recruiting center.
Abdulhakim Muhammad, 26, could face the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Pvt. William Andrew Long. He has said he killed Long and wounded Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula to avenge U.S. military action in the Middle East.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright seated two jurors by mid-afternoon Monday after he and lawyers questioned potential panelists about their thoughts on the death penalty, mental illness and Islam.
Most of those questioned had heard of the case — and among those turned away was a woman who said she had not only formed an opinion, but she could "absolutely" vote to kill the defendant.
Wright has set aside two weeks for the trial, with perhaps several days of jury selection. Of the first 50 or so potential jurors, only four said they had not heard about the June 1, 2009, shooting at a west Little Rock shopping center. The judge asked them and the others to not research the case.
Muhammad rocked in his chair while lawyers read a witness list to the jurors and asked whether any knew them.
Muhammad declared a personal war on the United States, upset with what he perceived as injustices in the nation's military action overseas. In an interview with The Associated Press a week after his arrest, he said he had a right to kill any American soldier.
He 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 had hoped for a bigger stage for his trial — in a federal or military court — and wanted to make his own arguments to jurors. Wright turned down another request Monday.
"I do not believe he's competent to represent himself," the judge said.
According to Muhammad and others, he drove to a military recruiting station in Little Rock where he saw two soldiers smoking cigarettes outside. Long, 23, and Ezeagwula, then 18, had recently completed basic training and volunteered to work as recruiters. Neither had seen combat. Muhammad fired an assault rifle and fled in an SUV that held a cache of weapons and a stash of food and water.
Caught moments later, he told authorities he wanted to kill more soldiers.
Muhammad was born Carlos Bledsoe in Memphis, Tenn., but changed his name after converting to Islam. In 2007, he traveled to Yemen, where Islamic extremists are known to seek sanctuary. He overstayed his visa and was deported. It's not clear whether Muhammad actually has links to terrorist groups or just says he does.
Jeannie Nuss can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeannienuss