- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 15, 2017

MIAMI (AP) - A decision is months away on seeking the death penalty for the Alaska man accused of killing five people and wounding six in a Florida airport mass shooting, federal prosecutors told a judge Wednesday.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys for Esteban Santiago said at a hearing Wednesday the death penalty decision process has only just begun. Santiago lawyer Eric Cohen said it will take 12 months for the defense to prepare a “mitigation” document showing reasons the death penalty should not be sought.

“We expect that it’s going to be lengthy,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ricardo Del Toro.

“It will take a substantial amount of time,” Cohen added.

Top Justice Department officials will make the final decision on whether to seek capital punishment against Santiago, who otherwise would get life behind bars if convicted. Trial is currently set Oct. 2, but U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom said that is a “placeholder” date.

“I understand there is much information to review,” the judge said.

Santiago, of Anchorage, Alaska, has pleaded not guilty to a 22-count indictment in the Jan. 6 shooting rampage at a baggage claim area inside Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Authorities say he flew from Alaska to Florida with a 9mm handgun and ammunition in a checked box, got it out in an airport bathroom and emerged firing randomly.

Santiago’s attorneys also repeated that he suffers from schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder but is taking medication and is competent to assist in his defense and stand trial. The FBI said Santiago claimed to be under some form of government mind control immediately after his arrest, later insisting the shooting was inspired by the Islamic State extremist group.

The FBI has said no ties to terrorist organizations have been found.

Bloom said she was satisfied for now about Santiago’s mental condition and would not order a formal competency evaluation. She said monthly status hearings will be held, and asked Santiago if he understand why those hearings are necessary.

“Yes,” he answered.

“Why is that, sir?” the judge asked.

“To see if I’m still taking my medicine. To see if I’m still mentally capable,” Santiago replied in a steady voice.


Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Miamicurt

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