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Reid Acted to Save Islam, Lawyers Say

The legal team of the 'shoe bomber' traces his troubled background in a pre-sentencing memo. He's likely to get life for trying to blow up a jet.

January 29, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Shoe bomber Richard Reid did not consider himself "particularly brave" or take "pleasure" in trying to blow up an airplane over the North Atlantic, but instead acted out of a desire "to prevent the destruction of the religion that saved him," his defense lawyers said Tuesday.

Reid is to be sentenced in federal court in Boston on Thursday, and faces a probable life sentence. The government last week filed a lengthy court memorandum urging that the 29-year-old British native never leave prison alive.

On Tuesday, his federal public defenders filed their own memo, trying to explain Reid's troubled childhood, his experiences with drugs and minor offenses in England, and his eventual journey to Islam, which he credits for turning his life around.

"He had come into contact with young Muslims who were convinced that Islam was under attack," the defense lawyers said. "Mr. Reid, who reports that he had neither known nor cared about history or world affairs, soon became convinced that his faith -- the faith that he felt had saved his life -- was in serious trouble."

The defense argued that airport security officials in Paris should never have let him on the passenger jet, given his unkempt, suspicious appearance and the fact that he had paid cash for his ticket and brought very little luggage.

The lawyers also asserted that Reid knew there was "a chance" that if he could properly light the shoe bombs, the plane would break apart and plummet to the sea. But, they said, he still maintains that "how good a chance was not clear to him."

Lawyers Owen S. Walker, Tamar R. Birckhead and Elizabeth L. Prevett acknowledged that the attempted explosion on Dec. 22, 2001, aboard American Airlines Flight 63, with nearly 200 people aboard, "was without question a horrific act."

But they sought to humanize their client, noting that the U.S. courts require that a defendant be "treated as an individual, that his background, his character and his motives be considered" at his time of sentencing.

However, the defense team did not ask for leniency.

Rather, the lawyers traced his birth and childhood in England, and his troubles with hashish and cocaine as a teenager and young man. They said Reid, the son of a Jamaican father, often experienced racism.

They said that he turned to Islam after reading "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," and that by 1995, when he was 22, he became a serious devotee of the religion.

The lawyers said Reid recently told them, "I believe in Allah. He is merciful and just and also all-knowing. He keeps man from corrupting himself."

Reid visited Afghanistan, and "he believed that the Taliban brought peace out of what he understood to have been preexisting pandemonium" there. Then he returned to Europe, and appeared at the airport in Paris.

The lawyers said, "FBI sources described him as a 'scraggly looking, smelly, 6-foot 4-inch traveler carrying a [small knapsack], a ticket paid in cash and no checked baggage.' The FBI commented, 'This guy should have attracted more intense scrutiny in Paris post 9/11.' "

Once aboard the plane, the lawyers said, Reid "had at least some doubt" that the bombs would ignite. For one thing, he told his lawyers, there was "extreme humidity at the outset of his trip and rain in Europe itself."

The plane was diverted to Boston, where Reid was arrested. Since then, his lawyers said, "Mr. Reid explains that his act is unmarked by egomania or desire for personal glorification. His fame, or infamy, around the world seems genuinely to repel him."

They added, "Mr. Reid says he took no pleasure in what he tried to do on Flight 63. He does not regard himself as particularly brave."

In his isolated jail cell, they said, he is "by all accounts a very quiet prisoner" who studies his 20 religious books, takes notes, prays according to schedule and writes one or two letters a month. Asked if he was seeking pure piety, he offhandedly told his lawyers, "I'm far from that, unfortunately."

And this is how he explained his actions a year ago, lighting six matches in the failed hope of igniting the bombs in his sneakers:

"Islam saved my life. It was under attack from the West. I had to do what I could."

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