LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A man accused of killing a soldier outside an Arkansas recruiting center became delusional after seeing a video he believed showed atrocities American soldiers committed against other Muslims and drove through three states looking for someone to attack, his defense attorney told jurors Wednesday.
Abdulhakim Muhammad, 26, is charged with capital murder and could face the death penalty if convicted in the 2009 shooting death of Pvt. William Andrew Long, 23. His defense team has acknowledged Muhammad killed Long and wounded Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula, then 18, but claims he is mentally ill. Muhammad and prosecutors deny that.
Defense attorney Patrick Benca said in his opening statement that Muhammad grew delusional after seeing a radical video of that supposedly showed American soldiers committing atrocities.
"He gets fired up. He gets mad about it," he said.
Benca said Muhammad packed up items from his Little Rock apartment, threw in a couple boxes of Cheez-Its and a few cans of fruit, made a couple of Molotov cocktails and drove to Kentucky, where a soldier in the video was from.
A recruiting center there was closed, so Muhammad drove to Nashville, Tenn., and tried to firebomb the home of a rabbi, Benca said. But the rabbi wasn't there anymore, so in frustration, Muhammad drove all night back to Little Rock, where he remembered there was a recruiting station on the city's west side.
"He goes over there with his gun," Benca said. He shot Long and Ezeagwula while they were on a cigarette break outside.
Prosecutor Larry Jegley showed pictures of the soldiers during his opening statement. He walked silently in front of the jury, holding a portrait, and then spoke: "William Andrew Long."
He repeated the action with Ezeagwula's picture.
"A son, a brother, a friend," Jegley said. "Wounded. Scarred in the same incident that took Pvt. Andy Long's life."
Long's father, Daris, fixed his gaze on Jegley as the prosecutor detailed the attack on a warm spring morning. Muhammad's father, Melvin Bledsoe of Memphis, Tenn., sat in the row behind Daris Long.
"Ten shots were fired. Ten shots from an assault rifle. ... They were fired by this man, Abdulhakim Muhammad, born Carlos Bledsoe," Jegley said, turning toward Muhammad.
Muhammad looked up at the prosecutor, at the jury and then lowered his head.
Muhammad has claimed ties to al-Qaida and told The Associated Press and the judge overseeing his case that he shot the soldiers to avenge U.S. wars in the Middle East.
He had hoped for a high-profile federal or military trial, but local prosecutors took the case believing they have a better chance of winning an execution, which is rarely carried out in federal cases. Prosecutors even rejected a plea bargain, since doing so would take the death penalty off the table.
Twelve jurors, plus two alternates, are hearing evidence in the case before Pulaski County Judge Herbert Wright. On Monday, Wright denied Muhammad's request to serve as his own lawyer, curtailing another of the defendant's attempts to garner more attention.
Muhammad has been wearing an electrified belt in court, with a uniformed bailiff sitting behind him with a remote-control button like the ones used to buzz in on game shows. Deputies fitted him with the belt after he acted up in a number of hearings before the trial started and was accused of attacking a jailer. Jurors can't see the belt beneath Muhammad's clothing.
A handful of people with no connection to the case arrived early Wednesday to claim a seat. Pamela Davis, 50, a substitute high school teacher, sat in the front row across the aisle from Long's father.
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"Curiosity got the best of the cat," said Davis, who likes to watch court shows on TV and online.
Muhammad moved to Arkansas in early 2009 as his father expanded the family's Memphis-based tour bus company. He changed his name after he converted to Islam in college.
In 2007, he traveled to Yemen, where Islamic extremists are known to seek sanctuary. He overstayed his visa and was deported back to the U.S. It's not clear whether he actually has links to terrorist groups or just says he does.
Jeannie Nuss can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeannienuss