MIAMI — The trial will be delayed until June for an Alaska man accused of killing five people and wounding six in a Florida airport shooting rampage, giving the Justice Department more time to decide whether to seek the death penalty, a federal judge ruled Monday.
The new trial date is June 11 for Esteban Santiago of Anchorage, Alaska. It had been scheduled to begin Jan. 22, but U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom agreed with federal prosecutors that the lengthy federal death penalty review process requires more time.
“It’s a time-consuming process and involves many persons, and it should be, given the gravity of this case,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence LaVecchio at a hearing in Miami federal court. “Everybody wants to get it right.”
Santiago, 27, pleaded not guilty to a 22-count indictment in the Jan. 6 shooting in a baggage area at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Authorities say he retrieved a 9mm handgun he had taken on a flight in checked luggage, loaded it in a bathroom and came out firing randomly in the crowded terminal.
After the shooting, the FBI says Santiago told agents he acted under government mind control, then claimed inspiration by Islamic State extremists. No terrorism links have been found.
The FBI says numerous airport security cameras captured the shooting on video and there are dozens of witnesses who can identify Santiago as the shooter.
Santiago, a National Guard Iraq war veteran, was briefly hospitalized in Alaska about two months before the airport shooting after complaining of mental problems but was released with no restrictions on possessing a gun. While awaiting trial in jail, Santiago has been taking anti-psychotic drugs to treat a diagnosis of schizophrenia, but his lawyers say he is competent to stand trial.
“I have no issue with his competency and his ability to proceed,” said public defender Eric Cohen.
Ultimately, Attorney General Jeff Sessions will make the final decision on seeking the death penalty. Before that, a local committee will make a recommendation on that issue to Miami acting U.S. Attorney Benjamin Greenberg, who would then forward it on to the Justice Department where another committee will review it.
Defense lawyers and victim family members are allowed a chance to be involved in the process as well.
Bloom ordered prosecutors to file any notice of intent to seek the death penalty by April 30.
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