Man Convicted in 9/11 'Backlash Attack' Could Face Death Penalty

By John Gilliland | July 7, 2008 | 8:21 PM EDT

( - The penalty phase of a murder trial featuring a Phoenix, Ariz., man who mistook a Sikh for an Arab and killed him in an apparent retaliation for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, began Thursday.

The jury in the case Tuesday took just three hours to convict 44-year old Frank Roque on six counts, including first-degree murder, in the death of 49-year old Balbir Singh Sohdi. The jury was to hear from defense attorneys Thursday pleading to save Roque's life, and from prosecutors looking to end it.

Prosecutors say Roque was looking for someone to kill, and when he saw Singh Sodhi, an Indian gas station owner in Mesa, Ariz., wearing a turban and a beard, he opened fire, hitting Singh Sohdi five times.

Roque denied responsibility for his role in the Sept. 15, 2001, drive-by shooting, claiming he was temporarily insane at the time. During closing arguments, Roque's lawyer, Daniel Patterson, blamed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for his client's crime, saying "there was lunacy at work on a grand scale on 9-11. There was also lunacy at work on a smaller scale in Mesa."

But prosecutors argued racism, not insanity, motivated Roque. Deputy Maricopa County Attorney Vincent Imbordino noted racism is a life-long condition. "It's not mental's anger, revenge, hatred," Imbordino said. Singh Sodhi's brother, Rana, said the verdict shows "the whole world that we will not tolerate hate in our community.

Prosecutors are attempting to prove an aggravating factor in Roque's crimes, necessary under Arizona state law for the handing out of a death sentence. A decision on whether to implement the death penalty is expected early next week.

The prosecutors argue that Roque deserves to die because he is a repeat offender, but lawyers for Roque hope to create enough doubt about their client's mental faculties to avoid the death penalty. If jurors decide there is no aggravating factor, or if they determine Roque is insane, Superior Court Judge Mark Aceto could sentence Roque to as little as 25 years in prison, or as much as life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Singh Sodhi's murder is but one of dozens of so-called "backlash crimes" which have been reported in the two years following the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Though the vast majority consists of graffiti and hate-filled gestures, the few that have involved violent crime have many people of Indian and Arabian ancestry frightened.

Sikhs, like Balbir Singh Sodhi, are especially vulnerable to these attacks. Their distinctive turbans and long beards remind many Americans of al Qaeda terror network chief Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 9-11 attacks.

In an effort to avoid future misunderstandings, another Singh Sodhi brother, Harjit, along with other Sikhs, met with Bush administration officials, Monday, to push for measures Sikhs believe would educate Americans about their religion. Among these are celebrating the founder of the Sikh religion's birthday, letting Sikhs in the U.S. military wear turbans in uniform, appointing Sikh chaplains and reopening the Sikh temple in Baghdad.

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