Shooter in Ark. soldier killing sentenced to life

By Jeannie Nuss

Associated Press

Published: Monday, July 25 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this photo taken Saturday, July 23, 2011, Daris Long is interviewed at Arkansas Veterans Cemetery in North Little Rock, Ark. The man on trial for the 2009 killing of Long's son, William Andrew Long, outside of a Little Rock recruiting center pled guilty to the charge Monday, July 25, 2011.

Danny Johnston, Associated Press

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 has repeatedly said he drove up to a Little Rock, Ark., recruiting station, drew an assault rifle and fired on the two uniformed soldiers. On Monday, Muhammad stood before a judge and once more admitted to the shooting that killed Pvt. William Andrew Long and wounded Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula.

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.

In exchange for Muhammad's plea, prosecutors could not pursue the death penalty.

Muhammad tried to plead guilty before the trial but was refused. Arkansas law requires a defendant to be tried if lethal injection is a sentencing option, lest the state grant a suicide request.

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.

Prosecutors consulted with the Longs and Ezeagwulas, who agreed to the plea deal after discussions behind closed doors.

Attorneys for Muhammad, who was born Carlos Bledsoe in Memphis, Tenn. and changed his name after converting to Islam, have argued that their client is delusional. A defense psychiatrist testified during the trial that Muhammad believes he's being persecuted due to his faith. Prosecutors planned to present their own psychiatrist, who found Muhammad free of mental defect or disease, as a rebuttal witness.

Long's father, Daris, said he was told defense attorneys would try to discredit the state's psychiatrist. And if the jury believed the defense instead, Muhammad might one day go free.

"If he goes to the same hospital that said he was sane to begin with, they could say he's sane and he walks," Long said.

The plea deal also quashes years of potential appeals that likely would have followed a guilty conviction and death sentence.

Still, both the Longs and Ezeagwulas on Monday questioned the lack of federal charges in the case against a self-professed jihadist.

"I'm not going to say (Muhammad) should be put to death, but I feel like the federal government should step in and do something about it," Ezeagwula's mother said.

Cherith Beck, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, declined to comment.

Prosecutor Larry Jegley said he didn't encourage the families to take or leave the plea deal. Instead, prosecutors answered questions and let the Longs and Ezeagwulas decide.

"I don't know that I'd be a good enough person to do that if I were in their shoes," he said.

Jegley said the trial allowed prosecutors to get the maximum sentence, aside from the death penalty.

"I'm proud of every single tax dollar that I spend on seeking justice," Jegley said when asked about the costs of the trial.

The state will pay for many of Muhammad's legal costs, though it wasn't immediately clear how much that will be. Under questioning by the prosecutors, the defense team's mental expert, Dr. Shawn Agharkar, said he charges $350 per hour and logged between 100 and 120 hours on Muhammad's case, totaling between $35,000 and $42,000. The state picks up that tab.

One of Muhammad's attorneys, Claiborne Ferguson, said he was pleased with the plea deal.

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