Tuesday, July 26, 2011

TOP STORY > >Jegley: Killer will never get out

Leader staff writers

Abdulhakim Muhammad, who had just pleaded guilty to killing a Conway soldier and wounding another from Jacksonville, was led out of the Pulaski County Courthouse on Monday afternoon to a maximum-security prison, but the victims’ families and the surviving soldier stayed behind and suddenly embraced Muhammad’s family.

Most reporters had rushed out of the courtroom to file their stories about Muhammad’s decision to plead guilty to all 12 charges and being sentenced to life without parole and an additional 195 years.

The killer’s family was relieved that Muhammad was spared the death sentence.

The parents of Pvt. William “Andy” Long of Conway, who was fatally shot at a Little Rock recruiting station, embraced Melvin Bledsoe, the killer’s father, and his family. The Longs forgave them for what Muhammad had done to their family. Also joining the embrace was Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula of Jacksonville, who survived the shooting, as he played dead in front of the recruiting station. His mother, Sonja, also hugged the Longs and the Bledsoes.

Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley and Deputy Prosecutor John Johnson stayed behind and watched the emotional scene.

“He’ll live out the rest of his life behind bars,” Jegley told The Leader afterward. “He’ll sit by himself in a four-by-eight cell and have an hour to exercise.”

The defense attorneys had gone to Jegley on Monday with an offer: They would halt the trial, which was entering its second week, and enter a guilty plea if Muhammad was spared the death sentence.

Jegley, who almost never makes plea deals in capital murder cases, quickly approached the dead soldier’s family and Ezeagwula and his mother with the offer from the defense.

“We didn’t advocate either direction,” Jegley said in an interview. He said it was up to the victims’ families whether to accept the guilty plea, which would mean Muhammad would be spared the death penalty.

They agreed to accept the guilty plea, Jegley said.

“They had shown a lot more mercy toward Bledsoe than he had shown them,” Jegley said. “It was an honor to serve them.”

Muhammad, who was known as Carlos Bledsoe before taking his Muslim name, went on a shooting rampage on June 1, 2009 at a west Little Rock recruiting station. The two soldiers were standing out in front of the station taking a smoke break when Muhammad drove up and opened fire.

Muhammad, after stopping the jury trial by declaring his guilt, was sentenced to life without parole, as well as 180 months for the capital murder of Long; life plus 180 months for attempted capital murder of Ezeagwula; and on 10 counts of unlawful discharge of a firearm from a vehicle, he received life plus 180 months for each charge.

The 180 months, or 15 years, added to each charge was an enhancement sentence for the severity of the crime.

Before Muhammad admitted his guilt in the courtroom during the trial that was projected to last two weeks, it took two full days to pick the 12 members of the jury and two alternates, two days for the prosecution to go through its list of police officers and other law-enforcement officials who responded to the scene or were part of the investigation team, then Long’s mother, Ezeagwula and taped confessions by Muhammad. It took less than two days of defense witnesses trying to paint Muhammad as being blindsided, and therefore mentally unable to stop himself, by his conversion to Islam and a journey to Yemen.

According to the prosecuting attorney’s summary report filed with the court, Muhammad told in-vestigators after his arrest that he fired several rounds at the soldiers with the intent of killing them. “I would have killed more soldiers if there were more in the parking lot,” Muhammad confessed.

After the shooting, Muham-mad fled, but was pulled over by police near on I-630 the I-30 interchange. Searching his vehicle, authorities found an assault rifle and several rounds of ammunition. At Muhammad’s Little Rock apartment, detectives found items used to make Molotov cocktails.

Jegley, in his summary, said at the time of the shooting there were 15 other people inside the recruiting station, some military, and some civilians. He said several of the rounds fired by Muhammad went through the window or the wall and went into the recruiting station. No one inside was hurt, but that’s why Muhammad was initially charged with 15 counts of a terroristic act.

Jegley, in his opening remarks to the jury last Wednesday, said Muhammad watched a Dutch film about the rape and murder of Muslims the night before the shooting and claimed his actions were in retaliation to U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Jegley pointed a finger at the defendant and, looking at the jurors, said, “They (the shots) were fired by this man. We’re here today because this man did it.”

Jegley said Long “was a son, a brother and a friend who died fighting for the United States Army.”

One of Muhammad’s defense attorneys, Patrick Benca, countered for the defense.

He gave the jurors a little background on the killer who used to be a “jokester” and “fun-loving” until his 18th birthday, when family, lifelong friends, coworkers and others began to notice him withdraw.

Muhammad studied several religions before converting to Islam and changing his name. He went to Yemen for 18 months, looking for “enlightenment.”

The defense attorney said Muhammad was arrested in Yemen and held in custody for three months.

Benca emphasized that his client’s isolation anxieties only increased and he couldn’t hold a job in Yemen or in the United States.

Benca acknowledged that his client killed Long and injured Ezeagwula in the attack. “It was horrible. It made me pray for the families, no question about that. But what it didn’t tell, it didn’t tell the whole story.”