- Associated Press - Monday, July 25, 2011

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A man who killed one Arkansas soldier and wounded another - an act he called retribution for the deaths of Muslims abroad - took an unexpected plea deal Monday that abruptly ended his murder trial and spared him the death penalty.

Abdulhakim Muhammad had proclaimed repeatedly that he drove up to a Little Rock, Ark., recruiting station, drew an assault rifle and fired on the two soldiers. On Monday, Muhammad stood before Pulaski County Judge Herbert Wright and once more admitted to committing the crime.

Judge Wright then sentenced Muhammad to life in prison without parole for capital murder, with 11 more life sentences on the remaining charges and an additional 180 years in prison. The families of slain Pvt. William Andrew Long and wounded Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula sat in the courtroom.

But in exchange for Muhammad’s plea, prosecutors could not pursue the death penalty, the primary reason they wanted a trial.

Arkansas law requires a defendant to be tried if lethal injection is a sentencing option, and prosecutors sought the death penalty for the capital murder charge. Muhammad tried to plead guilty before the trial but was refused.

The sixth day of the trial was delayed Monday morning as lawyers on both sides huddled about a deal. Prosecutors said it was the first time Muhammad’s attorneys had approached them with a plea deal in writing.

After receiving the offer, prosecutors pulled Long’s family out of the courtroom to discuss the deal.

Muhammad, 26, re-entered the courtroom about 1 p.m. Monday. The jury had been dismissed. His family, along with the families of his victims, had entered the courtroom to watch.

Two armed sheriff’s deputies stood behind Muhammad for the first time during the trial as Judge Wright read the charges against him: capital murder, attempted capital murder and 10 gun-related counts. Muhammad stood without handcuffs or shackles.

“Are you pleading guilty because you are guilty?” Judge Wright asked.

“Yes,” Muhammad replied.

Family members of the soldiers spoke after prosecutors accepted the plea.

Long’s father, Daris, described the pain he still felt. “I may appear normal on the outside, but inside, I’m screaming,” he said.

Pvt. Ezeagwula’s mother, Sonja Ezeagwula, looked directly at Muhammad’s family members, who had entered the courtroom to watch the plea. “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.

Muhammad’s family left shortly afterward without speaking to reporters.

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