BOSTON (AP/WPRI) — A Massachusetts man accused of participating in a plot to behead conservative blogger Pamela Geller became consumed by Islamic State group propaganda because he was overweight, lonely and desperate for an escape from his bleak life, his defense attorney said Wednesday.
Federal authorities say David Wright conspired with his uncle and a third man to kill Geller on behalf of the terrorist group because they were upset she organized a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas. The plot was never carried out. Wright also wanted to conduct other attacks in the U.S. and encouraged his uncle to kill police officers, officials say.
Wright’s attorney told jurors during her opening statement that the man was never really interested in helping the Islamic State group or committing violence. When Wright was allegedly plotting with the other men, he weighed more than 500 pounds, lived with his mother and had no career, Jessica Hedges said.
In the online world of the Islamic State group, he found the attention he was craving and the ability to pretend he was someone else, she said. He was a “complete idiot,” but he is not guilty, she said.
“In 2015, David felt very, very fat, very failed, and was living in a world of fantastical ideas,” Hedges told jurors at the federal courthouse in Boston. “He hid behind screens, looking for an escape, looking for a distraction from who he really was.”
Wright, 28, is charged with obstruction of justice, conspiring to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization and conspiring to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries. He faces up to life in prison.
Prosecutors attempted to portray Wright as the ringleader of the conspiracy, arguing he recruited his uncle, Ussamah Rahim, of Boston, and another man, Nicholas Rovinski, of Warwick, Rhode Island, to help him commit attacks.
The three men agreed to kill Geller in the summer of 2015 after the cartoon contest in suburban Dallas, Texas, prosecutors say. During the contest, two other men opened fire outside and wounded a security guard before they were killed in a shootout with law enforcement assigned to guard the event.
In May of that year, Wright met with Rahim and Nicholas Rovinski, of Warwick, Rhode Island, for more than two hours on a secluded Rhode Island beach and discussed plans to kill Geller, according to the indictment.
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Days later, Rahim told Wright he couldn’t wait to attack Geller and decided instead to go after “those boys in blue,” referring to police, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Siegmann told jurors.
Wright, of Everett, encouraged his uncle to attack police and die as a “martyr,” she said. He also instructed Rahim to destroy his cellphone and wipe all the data from his computer, Siegmann said. Hours later, Rahim was approached by officers in a Boston parking lot and was fatally shot after he pulled out a knife and moved toward them, officials say.
Authorities say Rahim received instructions about the plot to kill Geller from Junaid Hussain, an Islamic State member and hacker who was later killed in an airstrike in Syria. Rahim then passed along Hussain’s instructions to Wright, prosecutors say.
Wright wanted to wage other attacks in the U.S. and inflict more damage than was caused by the Boston Marathon bombing because, in his words, “that was not sufficient,” Seigmann said.
Wright told another person online that he was among dozens of Islamic State fighters in the U.S. who were ready to act, Siegmann said. The person Wright was chatting with was secretly working for the FBI and is expected to testify in Wright’s trial.
“The evidence will be overwhelming that the defendant was committed to murdering U.S. citizens,” Siegmann said.
Rovinski pleaded guilty in September to conspiracy charges and faces a sentence of between 15 and 22 years.
Rovinski, who has cerebral palsy and walks with a limp, took the stand Wednesday and told jurors that during their meeting on the beach, Wright told him Geller “deserved to be beheaded” because she insulted Muhammad.
Wright, who wore a blue collared shirt and black vest, looked down at a table and showed little emotion while the lawyers spoke.
His attorney conceded that many of the things Wright read and said are “upsetting.” But Wright never injured anyone and his words alone are not enough to convict him, she said.
“Freedom of speech matters in the United States,” Hedges said. “We can be incredibly angry at what someone reads, what someone says and what someone talks about and not convict them as a criminal for it,” she said.
Many of Wright and Rovinski’s Facebook messages were read in court on Wednesday. Those conversations included travel plans to Turkey and possibly using the trip as a way into Syria.
Rovinski was also asked whose idea it was to behead Geller, and he said it was Wright’s idea. He also testified that Wright was the first person to ever bring up Geller’s name.