Defense begins case in Arkansas soldier's slaying

By Jeannie Nuss

Associated Press

Published: Friday, July 22 2011 11:30 a.m. MDT

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A man who used to pray with Abdulhakim Muhammad at a mosque in Tennessee told jurors on Friday that the 26-year-old Muslim convert accused of fatally shooting a soldier at a military recruiting station in Arkansas became "distant" and withdrew from his friends after he traveled to Yemen in 2007.

Muhammad is charged with capital murder for killing Army Pvt. William Long and attempted capital murder for wounding Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula in 2009. Prosecutors rested their case Thursday after playing video of Muhammad confessing to the shootings, which he said were retribution for U.S. military action in the Middle East.

Defense attorney Patrick Benca says Muhammad had mental problems at the time of the shooting, though prosecutors and Muhammad himself dispute that notion.

Benca questioned, Jason Yarbrough, who knew and prayed with Muhammad in Nashville, Tenn., prior to Muhammad's trip to Yemen in 2007.

Yarbrough said Muhammad was originally interested in a mystical Islamic sect, but soon turned his attention to a more academic wing of the religion, which focused on studying Islamic texts.

When Muhammad returned from Yemen after he was deported, Yarbrough said he could see a distinct change in Muhammad.

Yarbrough recalled having Muhammad over for dinner with friends, saying, "He was real distant."

Muhammad would worship at other mosques in Nashville to avoid people in his old circle of friends, Yarbrough said.

Yarbrough also said Muhammad had trouble holding a job in Nashville and that Muhammad complained that his employers — or people who wouldn't hire him — were prejudiced against Muslims, something Yarbrough said he didn't believe.

Benca began the day Friday by asking Circuit Judge Herbert Wright to throw out the capital murder charge, claiming prosecutors failed to show the shooting was premeditated. Wright denied the motion.

The first defense witness was Monica Holley, Muhammad's older sister, who testified that her brother was happy and looked up to her and their father.

"Every time you saw him, he had a big smile on his face," Holley said. "He was just a joy to be around."

Muhammad, who was born Carlos Bledsoe, changed his name when he converted to Islam while in college, leaving behind the family's Baptist faith. After college, Holley said her brother took an interest in the family tour bus business.

But she recalled that she cried when her brother told her he was going to Yemen. She turned to her brother, who met her gaze for a moment before looking away.

"He looked me in my eyes and I trusted him," she said.

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