Defense seeks review of plea by Pentagon shooter

By MATTHEW BARAKAT | The Associated Press | Published: January 10, 2013

McLEAN, Va. -- Lawyers for a former Marine convicted of shooting at the Pentagon and other military targets want a judge to review a plea deal calling for a 25-year prison sentence now that their client has been diagnosed as schizophrenic.

Yonathan Melaku suffered from delusions that the 2010 shootings would allow him to reunite with a girl he knew in high school before the world came to an end in 2012, Melaku's lawyers wrote in court papers filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

Melaku, 25, of Alexandria, pleaded guilty last year to a series of shootings, including incidents at the Pentagon, the Marine Corps museum in Quantico, and military recruiting stations in Woodbridge and Chantilly. No one was injured. At the Pentagon, Melaku fired multiple shots at the southern exterior Oct. 19, 2010, with a 9 mm pistol, penetrating the outer layer of protective windows but not the interior.

Melaku was not found until 2011, when he was trying to desecrate graves in Arlington National Cemetery. He was discovered with a backpack containing potential explosives material and notations referring to jihad and Osama bin Laden.

He is scheduled for sentencing Friday, and the plea deal requires a 25-year sentence.

But Melaku has obtained new lawyers, and they uncovered evidence that they say show Melaku is mentally ill. Government doctors also recently diagnosed him as schizophrenic.

The new lawyers, Billy Martin and Geoffrey Gitner, said in Wednesday's motion that under the circumstances, the judge should review whether the plea and sentence are appropriate.

But they do not seek to invalidate the plea deal outright. That would expose Melaku to a possible mandatory minimum sentence of 85 years if federal prosecutors charge him to the fullest extent possible, which they say they would have done absent the plea deal.

Instead, the lawyers ask the judge to fully explain to Melaku the pros and cons of the plea deal. While Melaku could be acquitted on an insanity defense, he also would risk an 85-year sentence if jurors rejected the insanity claim.

"Mr. Melaku may have been deprived of effective assistance of counsel at the time he entered into the plea because he was never advised of the potential Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity Defense," Martin and Gitner wrote.

The lawyers say previous attorneys did not explore an insanity defense, despite evidence of mental-health problems. At Melaku's plea hearing in January 2012, his original attorney, Gregory English, requested that Melaku receive mental-health treatment but insisted his client was competent.

Subsequently, though, a defense-appointed psychiatrist, Neil Blumberg, and government doctors at the federal medical prison in Butner, N.C., have concluded that Melaku is schizophrenic. The Butner doctors wrote in their report that "Mr. Melaku consistently reported feeling threatened by God and believing he had to engage in certain behaviors or acts to `force God to stop the visions.'"

Blumberg's report refers to Melaku's delusions about the end of the world in 2012 and how the shootings would allow him to connect with the girl from high school.

Prosecutors want the judge to uphold the original plea and impose the 25-year sentence.

On Thursday the judge postponed Friday's sentencing hearing from the morning to the afternoon so Melaku could meet with his lawyers.


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