Serial stabber called mentally ill not terrorist

Thursday , May 17, 2012 - 9:56 AM

Ed White

FLINT, Mich.-- A man accused in a deadly series of stabbings in Michigan is a paranoid schizophrenic who had delusions that "evil forces" were directing him to hurt others, a psychiatrist testified Thursday as attorneys launched an insanity defense.

Attorneys for Elias Abuelazam are trying to persuade jurors that the Israeli immigrant is not criminally responsible for the murder of a 49-year-old man who was stabbed in a street near downtown Flint. Arnold Minor was one of 14 people knifed in the area in summer 2010. Five died.

Minor's blood was found in Abuelazam's SUV and on his jeans and shoes, and victims who survived have identified him in court as their attacker. An insanity defense appears to be his strongest card at trial.

"He couldn't control what he did," Dr. Norman Miller testified. "He was controlled like a marionette by the delusions. It's bizarre.

"These are random acts. He wasn't there to rob. He wasn't there to harass. He had no vengeance," Miller said. "There is no cultural motivation. The delusions forced him to find these individuals and harm them, not kill them."

Abuelazam was under the spell of "evil forces trying to control him," the psychiatrist testified.

Besides the Minor homicide, Abuelazam is charged with two other murders and six attempted murders in the Flint area and an attempted murder in Toledo, Ohio. Police said he would claim to have car trouble or ask for directions and then stab strangers who were willing to help.

Ahead of the court hearing, experts said an insanity defense is very difficult to pull off in Michigan, partly because jurors have the option of convicting someone of murder while also finding mental illness was involved. In the end, it still means life in prison without parole.

"Jurors are common-sense people," said Robert Ashley, a lawyer not involved in the Abuelazam case. "You can convince them with proper testimony that someone might be mentally ill, but you still have a dead body. They want someone to have responsibility for that."

Prosecutors have their own experts who examined Abuelazam, 35, and will rebut the insanity defense.

"That makes it even more difficult for a jury to make a finding that this guy isn't responsible when you have Ph.D.s and M.D.s saying he was," said F. Martin Tieber, a lawyer who specializes in appeals.

There has been little discussion of Abuelazam's personal life, and no relatives have appeared to watch the trial, 60 miles north of Detroit. He is a permanent U.S. resident from Israel who has lived in Florida and Virginia. He spent just a few months in Flint, moving into a house owned by an uncle, Tony Sahwany.

Sahwany told jurors it didn't "strike his mind" that Abuelazam was violent. Authorities captured him in Atlanta in August 2010 before the final leg of a trip to Israel.

Prosecutors have not disclosed a motive for the stabbings and are not required to offer one to the jury.

"You can be psychotic and still appear normal and perform a variety of functions. One does not exclude the other," said Dr. Emanuel Tanay of Ann Arbor, a retired forensic psychiatrist.

In 2010, he testified for Harlan Drake, a truck driver who admitted killing two people, including an abortion opponent who was shot while protesting outside a high school in Owosso, Mich. Tanay said Drake's poor mental condition was related to a crash that killed two Iowa teens in 2004. The jury, however, said he was criminally responsible for the shootings.

"Jurors can be very skeptical," said Ashley, who was Drake's attorney. "In my case, two people died, and they're going to say someone's not responsible when he had a gun and pulled the trigger? ... It's hard for jurors to find that."

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