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Nigerian Suspect Pleads Not Guilty in Airline Plot

January 8, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian man accused of attempting to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas, entered a plea of not guilty during an arraignment in Federal court Friday. Ray Suarez discusses the arraignment with Paul Egan of the Detroit News.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That follows our look at the arraignment of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in Detroit today. The 23-year-old Nigerian is charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.

To fill us in on the events in and outside the courtroom is Paul Egan, who covers federal courts for The Detroit News. He talked to Ray Suarez late this afternoon.

RAY SUAREZ: Paul Egan, welcome.

What was Abdulmutallab eventually charged with? What are the multiple counts?

PAUL EGAN, The Detroit News: Well, the most serious count is attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. That’s a charge that carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. He’s also charged with attempted murder and attempting to blow up an airplane, taking a destructive device upon an airplane, and two counts of using a destructive device to help commit a felony.

RAY SUAREZ: And how did he plead, and did he enter that plea on his own, or was it done by his lawyer?

PAUL EGAN: He stood mute today. And what normally happens at an arraignment happened today. The judge enters a not guilty plea on his behalf.

RAY SUAREZ: This is a young man who has only been seen in old photographs since his arrest. Describe for us his appearance, his demeanor? What did you see today in court?

PAUL EGAN: Well, the thing that struck you the most when you first saw him was how young he really looks. He looks, most people I spoke to agreed, looks considerably younger than 23 years old. His head was shaven. He is a relatively small young man. He was wearing a white T-shirt and khaki pants. And he really is not your image of the stereotypical terrorist.

RAY SUAREZ: When he was entering or leaving the courtroom, was there any sign of the severe burns that he incurred during the attempted attack?

PAUL EGAN: Well, he did appear to walk with a slight limp. And he mentioned to the judge that he is taking painkillers. Those are the only signs we saw that he is — you know, that he’s been injured in the attack. He was burned, apparently, trying to set off these — allegedly trying to set off these explosives hidden in his underwear.

RAY SUAREZ: Did the judge exchange many questions and answers with him? What did they talk about?

PAUL EGAN: There — an arraignment is usually a very brief proceeding. This lasted no more than five minutes. The judge only asked him — he asked him how far he went in school.

And he — the — it was very hard even for the judge to hear the young man’s answers. He didn’t really get a satisfactory answer from him. And then he moved on to whether he had taken any — any medication. And then he basically — after that, he really just dealt with the attorney as far as, you know — he asked him, have you talked about your attorney? Do you understand the charges?

He just answered yes to those. The most words he said during the entire hearing was, “I’m taking some painkillers.”

RAY SUAREZ: Were the public galleries full? Were there many people from the Detroit area trying to get into court for a look at what was happening?

PAUL EGAN: The courtroom was full, although they probably could have held a few more people. There was intense interest in this case because it was the first chance anybody had to really have a look at this defendant.

People had to line up to get a card to enter the courtroom. Security was extremely high. There were sniffer dogs to check for explosives in the courthouse, large numbers of U.S. marshals. And they were even more restrictive than normal in terms of what electronic equipment you could bring in the courthouse, because they were apparently concerned about electronic equipment possibly being used to set off an explosion.

RAY SUAREZ: Was there much of a crowd outside the courtroom? There had been some controversy in Michigan about bringing an alleged terrorist to be tried there.

PAUL EGAN: Well, there was a fairly large demonstration outside the courthouse. And, interestingly, it was mostly Muslim Americans and Nigerian Americans protesting against terrorism, disassociating themselves from the alleged action of this defendant, saying, you know, we love this country and we — we denounce those who would try to hurt its citizens.

RAY SUAREZ: Paul, what are the next steps in this case? Did the judge schedule either an evidentiary hearing or the beginning of jury selection?

PAUL EGAN: No, there’s no hearings set yet. From now on — today’s proceeding was handled by a U.S. magistrate judge. From now, on the proceedings will mostly be handled by a federal district judge, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds.

And the next step is really motions. There will likely be motions by the defense to suppress statements that the young man made to the FBI shortly after he was arrested, before he was represented by counsel. There’s also likely to be motions for discovery.

The defense will be trying to find out exactly what evidence the government has. And I’m told that the lawyers, if they don’t already have them, will have to get probably security clearances, because some of the discovery in this case will be classified information.

RAY SUAREZ: Paul Egan, from the federal courthouse in Detroit, thanks a lot.

PAUL EGAN: Thank you, Ray.