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Ark. soldiers' families act as jurors, agree to plea deal for man who admitted shooting them
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) ' They filed out of the courtroom to decide the fate of a man who shot two soldiers outside a military recruiting station in Arkansas. Then, they prayed.
As Abdulhakim Muhammad stood trial for killing one soldier and wounding the other, his victims' families acted as his jurors. On Monday, six relatives and the soldier he wounded accepted a plea deal that pulled the death penalty off the table after they deliberated about Muhammad's likely endless list of appeals and the possibility that he could get off scot-free if the trial continued.
"What we did would be the same thing as the jury," said Daris Long, whose son died two years ago after Muhammad fired an assault rifle at him.
As part of the plea agreement, Muhammad acknowledged his guilt to the families of Pvt. William Andrew Long, who died in the shooting, and Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula, who still has shrapnel in his body from the bullets. Muhammad has already confessed to authorities and to media outlets, including The Associated Press, but he has said the shooting was justified because American troops were killing his fellow Muslims in the Middle East.
On Monday, Muhammad didn't get a soapbox. Instead, the judge sentenced him to life in prison without parole, plus 11 more life sentences and an additional 180 years in prison.
Since Muhammad's trial started last week, prosecutors have portrayed the 2009 shooting as a horrific murder. Ezeagwula testified about watching his friend, 23-year-old Long, fall to the ground as bullets him them. Long's mother, Janet, recalled hearing the gunshots that killed her son as she waited in the parking lot outside the recruiting center.
Muhammad's defense attorneys didn't contest that their client killed Long and wounded Ezeagwula. Instead, they argued he's delusional. Their star witness, a psychiatrist, testified that Muhammad believes he's being persecuted due to his faith as a Muslim. Prosecutors planned to present their own psychiatrist, who found Muhammad free of mental defect or disease.
But Monday morning, prosecutors told Long that defense attorneys would likely try to attack the state's psychiatrist.
Prosecutor Larry Jegley said those conversations were part of an effort to be transparent with the victims' families, not to encourage them to accept or reject the plea deal. He added that the state psychiatrist "would be a fine witness."
"We do not discuss plea bargains until we have a filled-out, signed-by-the-defendant plea statement in hand to present to the family," Jegley said. Prosecutors said Monday was the first time that happened.
Muhammad had 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.
On Monday, prosecutors answered questions and let the Longs and Ezeagwulas reach their decision behind closed doors.
"The emotional side of a lot of people was he needs to die," Daris Long said. "But when you strip the emotion away and you start getting into rational thought where you really have to weigh things out, that emotion, you have to push it aside."
Long played devil's advocate and the group reduced its talk to the rational fears, the kind juries mull over.
"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.
So, they took a vote ' and agreed to the plea.
"We had to all be behind it or we wouldn't have taken it," Long said.
Born Carlos Bledsoe in Memphis, Tenn., Muhammad changed his name after converting to Islam in college. He traveled to Yemen, a country suspected of providing sanctuary to Islamic terrorists. He overstayed his visa and he was deported back to the U.S.
Muhammad told The Associated Press that the shootings were an act of war he had declared on the United States. He professed ties to al-Qaida. But his defense attorneys and his father, Melvin Bledsoe, argued that Muhammad's claims are just the delusions of someone who suffers from mental problems.
"Anyone who watches him speak or reads those letters that he's been writing knows that something is not right in his head," Melvin Bledsoe said in an interview before the trial.
Muhammad and investigators said he drove up to a military recruiting station in Little Rock in 2009, where two soldiers ' Long and Ezeagwula, then 18 ' were smoking cigarettes outside. They'd only just finished 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. He told authorities he would have killed more soldiers if he could have.
A short while after the families reached their decision on Monday, Muhammad pleaded guilty and Circuit Judge Herbert Wright dismissed the members of the real jury.
Long's sister, mother and brother testified, as did Ezeagwula's mother.
Sonja Ezeagwula looked at Muhammad's relatives who had entered the courtroom to watch the plea. She said her son's life had been changed forever by the shooting, but offered the Bledsoes a bit of empathy.
"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.
The Longs testified and the judge read out Muhammad's sentence. Soon, the courtroom emptied, leaving the three families.
The Ezeagwulas and Longs addressed a gaggle of reporters, and the Bledsoes left without comment.
But first, in the quiet of the courtroom, Melvin Bledsoe extended his hand to Daris Long, the man who sat, silently, through his son's trial. He hugged Bledsoe.
"They didn't deserve this, what their son did," Long said.
Jeannie Nuss can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeannienuss