Raleigh, North Carolina - A federal judge on Thursday declared a mentally ill man fit for trial on a terrorism charge 10 months after the man started getting forcible injections with drugs that made him competent to defend himself in court.
But a defense attorney for the North Carolina man accused of trying to join al-Qaida-linked fighters in Syria said he will ask the U.S. government to drop a terrorism charge and allow the man to receive care from his family.
Basit Sheikh, 33, has schizophrenia. Dismissing a charge of providing material support to a terrorist group would allow him to be released to his family in suburban Raleigh, which could report to probation officers if he refused to take anti-psychotic medications, said Robert Waters, a federal public defender.
Sheikh has been held since late 2013, when he was arrested in an FBI sting.
U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle declared Sheikh mentally competent to stand trial. But Boyle asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Kellhofer whether considering his serious and possibly permanent mental illness Sheikh should still be tried after nearly 3 ½ years of confinement.
"The mitigating factor is that he's crazy," Boyle said. "So from a humanitarian standpoint, what are we going to do?"
Kellhofer replied that the while Sheikh could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted, prosecutors would consider a request for his conditional discharge from the federal prison hospital where he's being held.
Kellhofer told Boyle during a 2015 hearing — when a shackled Sheikh shouted incoherently for several minutes before being carried from the courtroom by federal marshals — that prosecuting and convicting Sheikh was important in order to deter other would-be American radicals.
Sheikh was an early target in an FBI effort to find and arrest Americans before they could join terrorist groups fighting in Syria, and perhaps later return home battle-hardened and full of anti-American zeal.
Sheikh was arrested before boarding an airliner in Raleigh for a trip to Lebanon. He had written online messages expressing a desire to fight with the Nusra group, which is battling against Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops, the FBI said.
Sheikh said Thursday he hadn't planned on joining the fighting, but instead wanted to help refugees and marry the female nurse in Syria he thought he was in contact with on Facebook. That "nurse" was an FBI agent or informant.
Sheikh represents one of the rare cases in which federal prosecutors persuaded courts to approve a forced medication order. There were only about 77 such cases in federal courts nationwide in the nine years after a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that restricted involuntary medication to certain serious criminal cases, according to a 2013 study by Georgetown University law professor Susan McMahon.
On Thursday, Sheikh stood facing Boyle and shifted his weight rapidly from one foot to the other. That was one of the side effects of the anti-psychotic drugs, Waters said, along with eye and heart tremors and more generalized trembling.
Sheikh initially resisted injections of the medications and had to be strapped down, Kellhofer said. Sheikh is no longer restrained for the injections every three weeks, Waters said. The suspect has even participated successfully in a mock trial inside the prison to test Sheikh's ability to understand what was happening and the roles of the opposing attorneys, Waters said.
"Is he competent and sane now?" Boyle asked Waters.
"Yes, your honor," Sheikh interjected quickly. "I've been getting better."