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May 1, 2018

Feds forego capital prosecution for airport mass murderer, allowing guilty plea to LWOP

This new local article from Florida, headlined "Airport shooter Esteban Santiago to plead guilty, spend life in prison," highlights how (jury) sentencing discretion and other procedural rights in capital cases can impact how prosecutors approach charging and bargaining even in horrible murder cases.  Here are the details (with my emphasis added), with a bit of commentary to follow:

Esteban Santiago, the man who confessed to fatally shooting five people and wounding six at Fort Lauderdale’s international airport, has agreed to plead guilty and spend the rest of his life in federal prison.

Prosecutors have accepted his offer and are not seeking the death penalty but the judge first wants Santiago to undergo a mental health evaluation to make sure he’s legally competent to plead guilty.

The decision takes a very expensive and potentially long and emotional trial — followed by years of appeals — off the table.  Santiago’s documented history of severe mental illness, the fact that he went to the FBI and asked for help two months before committing the mass shooting, his willingness to plead guilty and his military service in the Iraq War were likely among the top factors that affected the decision, experts said.

Santiago, 28, had pleaded not guilty to a 22-count indictment in the Jan. 6, 2017 mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.  Ten of those charges carried a potential death sentence or life in federal prison. His change-of-plea hearing is expected to be scheduled in the next several weeks in federal court in Miami.

Both sides are due back in court May 23 for a competency hearing with U.S. District Beth Bloom. If the judge is satisfied that Santiago is mentally competent, she would then allow him to plead guilty....

He was briefly hospitalized for psychiatric care in Alaska in November 2016, two months before the shooting. He had driven to the FBI office in Anchorage, asked for help and told agents he was hearing voices and thought the government was controlling his mind.

After Santiago surrendered at the airport, FBI agents said he confessed and told them he was “programmed” to act under government mind control. Later in the interview, he said he was inspired by the Islamic State extremist group, but authorities said no terrorism links have been found.

Though the line highlighted above tells a big part of the story, I still find myself left wondering about what factors played a central role in the sentencing decision-making of federal prosecutors here. I wonder if many or even most of the victims/family members supported this decision to forego a capital prosecution (and also wonder if they at all troubled that this critical decision lingered for 16 months from the time of this awful crime). I also wonder if prosecutors, perhaps concerned about a possible insanity defense and criticisms of mental health care given to veterans, we not even confident about getting a guilty verdict, let alone a death sentence, were this case to go to trial.

Whatever the reasons for the feds decision-making here (which will remain hidden and are essentially unreviewable), this case helps reveal the range of forces that necessarily place brakes on any efforts by the Trump Administration and Attorney General Sessions to make significantly more use of the death penalty.  A mass shooting in an airport of nearly a dozen people with five deaths would seem to be a textbook example of a "worst-of-the-worst" offense.  But because the defendant can make the case that he is not a worst-of-the-worst offender, federal prosecutors (in a pro-death penalty state) are not even willing to try to secure a death sentence.  

May 1, 2018 at 10:36 AM | Permalink


Is this a global plea agreement, or could Florida try to go for death?

Posted by: Anon AFPD | May 1, 2018 11:29:10 AM

Contrary to your statement, Sessions makes the decision. He put the brakes on himself.

Posted by: whatever | May 1, 2018 11:34:02 AM

whatever, the USA Manual suggests AG Sessions can and does get lots of input from lots of folks inside DOJ. According to USAN 9-10.050: "The decision-making process preliminary to the Attorney General's final decision ... [may include, e.g.,] the recommendations of the United States Attorney's Office or Department component, the Attorney General's Review Committee on Capital Cases (hereinafter the "Capital Review Committee"), the Deputy Attorney General, the Capital Case Section, and any other individual or office involved in reviewing the case."

It is possible AG Sessions would order a capital prosecution against the recommendation of all of these players, but it strikes me a VERY unlikely. That is why I referenced, in plural, the "sentencing decision-making of federal prosecutors here." But you are right to stress that this was, ultimately, the (soft?) decision of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Posted by: Doug B | May 1, 2018 11:48:17 AM

A question I also had, Anon AFPD. I am assuming not, though I also would predict Florida would also be disincline to invest its resources on an uncertain capital prosecution in this case. But one never knows....

Posted by: Doug B | May 1, 2018 11:55:11 AM

"A question I also had, Anon AFPD. I am assuming not, though I also would predict Florida would also be disincline to invest its resources on an uncertain capital prosecution in this case. But one never knows...."

A person recently executed was sentenced to 400 years or something by a prosecution brought by the feds but the state went ahead and brought a capital case anyhow.

The facts are different here, in large part because of his mental status. A "worse of the worst" case is not just a matter of the crime but the offender. The article says the victims' families were consulted. In a range of cases, and this would be true among my own family, there is a split of opinion in these cases among victims regarding the death penalty. I would guess this was the case here too.

Posted by: Joe | May 1, 2018 12:26:10 PM

I really don't know what evidence you have to say his decision making ability is "soft."

Posted by: whatever | May 1, 2018 3:03:03 PM

I wonder how high the bidding will go? As documented on this blog it started out that veterans being granted one free fraud, then it moved on to one free sex offense, then it become one free murder and now it is five free murders. The carnage the military trained people to inflict on foreigners keeps inflicting the home front. I wonder why?

"FBI agents said he confessed and told them he was “programmed” to act under government mind control.

Correct, the government mind control programming is more politely called "boot camp" which is where they learn to kill. The promising sadists go to officer school which is where killing becomes normalized. The real sick ones wind up in JAG, which is the where killing is intellectually justified.

Posted by: Flower Child | May 1, 2018 3:20:24 PM


'soft' in the sense that his ability to say "yes" in the face of a united "no" from the various other parties is greatly restrained (perhaps not in theory but definitely in practice). It would be true regardless of who sits in the AG's chair.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 1, 2018 4:10:09 PM

Again, that's not evidence. That's just your opinion.

Posted by: whatever | May 2, 2018 10:42:16 AM

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