Suspect in Ark. soldier's death seeks bigger stage

July 17, 2011 - 1:29 PM
Recruiters Shot

FILE - In this June 5, 2009 file photo, Abdulhakim Muhammad stands in a Little Rock, Ark., courtroom. When Muhammad killed a soldier outside a military recruiting station in Arkansas, he hoped the world would pay attention to the war he believed he declared on the United States. He goes on trial the week of June 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — When Abdulhakim Muhammad killed a soldier outside a recruiting station in Arkansas, he hoped the world would pay attention to the war he had declared on the United States. He took responsibility for the shooting, called it retaliation for U.S. military action the Middle East and claimed ties to al-Qaida.

But when Muhammad goes on trial this week in Little Rock, he won't face any federal or terrorism charges. He complained he's being treated like a common criminal, with a state trial on a capital murder charge. There will be no grand stage for his political beliefs, and if convicted by the state rather than the federal government, he faces a much greater chance of execution.

The U.S. has put three people to death since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988. Arkansas executed 27 people in that time.

"This case should be in federal or military court..." Muhammad, 26, objected in a letter to Circuit Judge Herbert Wright in May. "In my eyes it's a sham trial set up only to make sure I'm handed down a death sentence."

Federal officials have mostly kept quiet about Muhammad's case. The U.S. attorney in Little Rock declined to comment. But one person in federal law enforcement, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak before the trial, said the Justice Department and FBI were interested in pursuing charges but allowed the state to proceed after extensive negotiations with Arkansas prosecutors.

Death penalty issues aside, some say prosecuting Muhammad on a capital murder charge has the benefit of deflating his grandiose self-perceptions.

"He wants to be perceived as a sort of foot soldier in this revolution against the United States," said John DiPippa, law school dean for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "Trying him on the base crime of murder, you're depriving him of even that recognition."

Muhammad has confessed to The Associated Press, to the judge overseeing his case and to authorities, describing what he'd done and why. He tried to plead guilty in court, but Arkansas law doesn't allow that in death penalty cases, lest the state grant a kind of suicide request. The judge told him he'd have to have a trial.

Muhammad and others said he drove up to a military recruiting station in Little Rock in 2009, where two soldiers — Army Pvt. William Andrew Long, 23, and Pvt. Quinton 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 and father say something's clearly wrong.

"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.

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.

It's not clear whether Muhammad actually has links to terrorist groups or just says he does. He claimed after the shootings that the FBI had been investigating him, but the FBI hasn't confirmed that. Steven Frazier, a spokesman for the FBI in Little Rock, declined to comment on the case.

"He thinks he's al-Qaida and to some extent it doesn't matter if he officially joined or not," said former West Point researcher Jarret Brachman, who wrote a book about global jihad.

No FBI agents are expected to testify at Muhammad's trial. His attorneys tried to subpoena an FBI agent who allegedly had contact with him, but to no avail.

"They're not going to let the FBI come in and tell the truth about what they knew and how they dropped the ball on this," said Claiborne Ferguson, a Memphis attorney hired by Muhammad's father. "They screwed up, and they don't want to have to admit it."

Prosecutors say the crime is a drive-by shooting committed by a thug with a gun.

"It's just like every other unlawful taking of human life," prosecutor Larry Jegley said. "It has a horrible impact on the family and survivors and it stains the soul of the community."

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Associated Press writer Pete Yost contributed to this report from Washington.

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Jeannie Nuss can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeannienuss.