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Mental illness as defense in Mich. stabbings trial
Lawyers in Mich. serial stabbings trial poised to offer a difficult defense: mental illness
By The Associated Press

FLINT, Mich. (AP) ' Elias Abuelazam dutifully tended the cash register at a party store for $10 an hour. But after punching out, according to police, he was a different, dangerous guy, repeatedly faking car trouble in the wee hours then stabbing strangers who responded to his appeal for help.

Attorneys in the first murder trial stemming from a 2010 stabbing spree in Flint are poised to offer a defense: Abuelazam might have been mentally ill and couldn't fully understand what he was doing.

Experts said it's a very difficult way to beat a case in Michigan, partly because jurors have the option of convicting someone of murder while also finding mental illness was involved. In the end, it still means life in prison without parole.

"Jurors are common-sense people," said Robert Ashley, a lawyer not involved in the Abuelazam case. "You can convince them with proper testimony that someone might be mentally ill, but you still have a dead body. They want someone to have responsibility for that."

Abuelazam's attorneys won't comment before giving an opening statement to jurors Thursday, two days after prosecutors closed their case. A psychiatrist, Dr. Norman Miller, is expected to testify about Abuelazam's mental condition two years ago when 14 people were stabbed in and around Flint. Five died.

Abuelazam, 35, is on trial for one of the deaths, the slaying of Arnold Minor, although he faces murder or attempted murder charges in eight other attacks in the Flint area and one in Toledo, Ohio. Minor's blood was found in Abuelazam's SUV and on his pants and shoes, authorities say. Prosecutors have their own experts lined up if he opens an insanity defense.

"That makes it even more difficult for a jury to make a finding that this guy isn't responsible when you have Ph.D.s and M.D.s saying he was," said F. Martin Tieber, a lawyer who specializes in appeals.

There has been little discussion of Abuelazam's personal life, and no relatives have appeared to watch the trial, 60 miles north of Detroit. He is a permanent U.S. resident from Israel who has lived in Florida and Virginia. He spent just a few months in Flint, moving into a house owned by an uncle, Tony Sahwany.

Sahwany told jurors it didn't "strike his mind" that Abuelazam was violent. Authorities captured him in Atlanta in August 2010 before the final leg of a trip to Israel.

Prosecutors have not disclosed a motive for the stabbings and are not required to offer one to the jury.

"You can be psychotic and still appear normal and perform a variety of functions. One does not exclude the other," said Dr. Emanuel Tanay of Ann Arbor, a retired forensic psychiatrist.

In 2010, he testified for Harlan Drake, a truck driver who admitted killing two people, including an abortion opponent who was shot while protesting outside a high school in Owosso, Mich. Tanay said Drake's poor mental condition was related to a crash that killed two Iowa teens in 2004. The jury, however, said he was criminally responsible for the shootings.

"Jurors can be very skeptical," said Ashley, who was Drake's attorney. "In my case, two people died, and they're going to say someone's not responsible when he had a gun and pulled the trigger? ... It's hard for jurors to find that."

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