FRANKFURT, Germany — The man who confessed to shooting a group of U.S. airmen at Frankfurt Airport last March in what prosecutors called a “personal jihad,” was convicted Friday of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Arid Uka was found guilty on two counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder. He smiled briefly as the judge pronounced his sentence.
Under German law, those sentenced to life are eligible for parole after 15 years, but the judges deciding the case found Uka bore “severe guilt,” which could extend the time before parole is possible.
How long Uka must serve before he is eligible for parole will be determined by a separate court after Uka has served about 14 years, German legal experts said. They also said he would likely serve 18-20 years.
The former airport postal worker, a Kosovo Albanian reared in Frankfurt, confessed during his initial court appearance in late August. He said he’d opened fire because he’d been misled by Islamist propaganda on the Internet. He said he was trying to prevent American troops from raping Afghan girls, and he’d acted after seeing a clip of the movie, “Redacted.” That movie depicts the rape of an Iraqi girl and the murder of her and her family by U.S. soldiers.
After the judges entered the courtroom, the head judge read the verdict and then reviewed the case and evidence. At the end, he spoke to the two family members in the court.
Representing the court, Judge Thomas Sagebiel offered the families of the victims its deepest sympathies for what he called “a cowardly and devious act,” and hoped that the conviction of the accused gave them some comfort.
Relatives of the two airmen who were killed, Senior Airman Nicholas Alden and Airman 1st Class Zachary Cuddeback, said they were satisfied with the verdict and sentencing.
“I think justice was served,” Joe Alden, Nicholas’ brother, said. He attended Friday’s hearing with his sister Kelsey Ann. “I think he got what he deserved. We don’t have any ill will whatsover toward Germany,” Joe Alden said.
Robert Cuddeback, Zachary’s father, reached by telephone in upstate New York, said he was glad the German system worked.
“I know he received the longest sentence Germany allows. It won’t bring Zack or Nick back. Nothing will.”
“I’m still very disappointed that the U.S. did not push for extradition more aggressively,” Robert Cuddeback said. In June, U.S. federal prosecutors filed murder and terrorism-related charges against Uka in federal district court in Manhattan. Officials have declined to say whether they were seeking Uka’s extradition.
Uka shot Nicholas Alden, 25, of Williamston, S.C., in the head as he stood outside a bus bound for Ramstein Air Base, according to testimony. Alden was a member of a unit of military police en route to a deployment in Afghanistan.
Uka then boarded the bus and shot Cuddeback, the driver, 21, of Stanardsville, Va., in the temple. Both Alden and Cuddeback died instantly, experts testified.
Once aboard, Uka continued to fire.
Staff Sgt. Kristoffer Schneider, 25, of Irwin, Pa., was severely wounded, with a bullet to the head that blinded him in one eye and has left him with numerous neurological problems.
Senior Airman Edgar Veguilla, from Wichita Falls, Texas, also was wounded but told the court he’d recovered completely.
Staff Sgt. Trevor Brewer, 23, testified that Uka had shot point-blank at him twice, with “hate” in his eyes. The gun jammed, and Uka fled into the airport, with Brewer in pursuit. Uka was arrested by airport police.
Brewer was honored in Berlin last month, presented with Germany’s Federal Cross of merit for “extraordinary efforts against an Islamist motivated terrorist deed.”
Uka, who turned 22 this week according to court officials, was described by former teachers and employers as quiet, polite and detached. Friends testified that they all spent time playing war-themed video games.
He had no criminal record.
He sat throughout his trial looking down at the table in front of him and at one hearing said he found it difficult to stay awake.
Uka’s defense had asked the judges not to impose a severe-guilt finding and allow Uka parole after 15 years.
“He’s not a man. He’s a boy who spent his time playing computer games,” defense attorney Michaela Roth said in her closing argument last month.
Roth said Uka had acted out “feelings of shame, helplessness and despair” after watching the movie clip because he had been sexually abused when he was 6 years old.
Uka’s sentence will be appealed, said his lawyer Jens Jeorg Hoffmann.
German authorities say Uka, in committing the country’s first jihadist-inspired murders, acted alone.
A Stuttgart journalist challenged that idea in a story published shortly before the verdict and sentence were to be handed down last month. The story, which claimed that Uka had been seen in Bosnia near a mosque known to attract Islamists the summer before the shooting and suggested he might have attended a terrorist training camp, extended the trial by two hearings.
One week after the incident, the U.S. military suspended its use of the distinctive blue school buses at the airport, according to airport officials. In the days after the shooting, the U.S. military in Europe banned servicemembers from wearing their uniforms off base, a policy that’s since been relaxed by individual service components.
At Ramstein, where the airmen were headed when the shooting took place, Airman 1st Class Jaclyn Crynelle, 20, of the 86th Dental Squadron, said the shooting changed her attitude toward travel.
“I wasn’t ever really scared to go onto an airplane because I traveled my whole life, but as soon as I found out I was flying through Frankfurt, I went out and bought a new backpack, and anything not to make me look military,” said Crynelle, of Long Beach Island, N.J.
She said she didn’t think he should be eligible for parole.
“I think he should spend his life in prison because he took innocent people’s lives who were fighting for their country.”
Stars and Stripes reporters Joshua L. DeMotts and Marcus Klöckner contributed to this report.