Shooter in Ark. soldier killing sentenced to life

By Jeannie Nuss

Associated Press

Published: Monday, July 25 2011 2:50 p.m. MDT

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A man who killed one Arkansas soldier and wounded another — an act he called retribution for the deaths of Muslims abroad — took an unexpected plea deal Monday that abruptly ended his murder trial and spared him the death penalty.

Abdulhakim Muhammad had repeatedly proclaimed that he drove up to a Little Rock, Ark., recruiting station, drew an assault rifle and fired on the two soldiers. On Monday, Muhammad stood before Pulaski County Judge Herbert Wright and once more admitted to committing the crime.

Wright then sentenced Muhammad to life in prison without parole for capital murder, with 11 more life sentences on the remaining charges and an additional 180 years in prison. The families of slain Pvt. William Andrew Long and wounded Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula sat in the courtroom.

But in exchange for Muhammad's plea, prosecutors could not pursue the death penalty — the primary reason they wanted a trial.

Arkansas law requires a defendant to be tried if lethal injection is a sentencing option, and prosecutors sought the death penalty for the capital murder charge. Muhammad tried to plead guilty before the trial but was refused.

The sixth day of the trial was delayed Monday morning as lawyers on both sides huddled about a deal. Prosecutors said it was the first time Muhammad's attorneys approached them with a plea deal in writing.

After receiving the offer, prosecutors pulled Long's family out of the courtroom to discuss the deal.

Muhammad, 26, re-entered the courtroom about 1 p.m. Monday. The jury had been dismissed. His family, along with the families of his victims, had entered the courtroom to watch.

Two armed sheriff's deputies stood behind Muhammad for the first time during the trial as Wright read the charges against him: capital murder, attempted capital murder and 10 gun-related counts. Muhammad stood without handcuffs or shackles.

"Are you pleading guilty because you are guilty?" Wright asked.

"Yes," Muhammad replied.

Family members of the soldiers spoke after prosecutors accepted the plea.

Long's father, Daris, described the pain he still felt. "I may appear normal on the outside, but inside, I'm screaming," he said.

Ezeagwula's mother, Sonja Ezeagwula, looked directly at Muhammad's family members who had entered the courtroom to watch the plea.

"I am so sorry for the choice that your son decided to make," she said. She wiped her nose with a tissue as she returned to her seat.

Muhammad's family left shortly afterward without speaking to reporters.

Muhammad and investigators said he drove up to a military recruiting station in Little Rock in 2009, where two soldiers — Long, 23, and Ezeagwula, then 18 — were smoking cigarettes outside. They'd recently completed basic training and had volunteered to work as recruiters. Neither had seen combat. Muhammad fired an assault rifle, killing Long and wounding Ezeagwula.

Police stopped Muhammad moments later on a highway that would have taken him to Memphis, Tenn., where he lived until he moved to Little Rock. Officers found more weapons and ammunition in his truck, along with a stash of bottled water and food. He told authorities he would have killed more soldiers if he could have.

Muhammad and those prosecuting him say he knew what he was doing, but his defense attorneys argued that he was not guilty by reason of mental defect. A defense psychiatrist testified Muhammad was delusional.

"Anyone who watches him speak or reads those letters that he's been writing knows that something is not right in his head," said his father, Melvin Bledsoe of Memphis.

Muhammad was born Carlos Bledsoe but changed his name after converting to Islam during 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.

Muhammad claimed to have links to terror groups, but it's unclear whether that is true.

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