An ex-Marine convicted of firing shots at the Pentagon and other military targets in 2010 was sentenced Friday to 25 years in prison, despite a recent diagnosis of schizophrenia that raised some questions about his sanity.
At a sentencing hearing Friday in U.S. District Court, Yonathan Melaku, 24, of Alexandria, said he wanted to go forward with a plea deal reached last year that called for a 25-year sentence -- even though the schizophrenia diagnosis, confirmed by government doctors, raised the possibility of an insanity defense.
Melaku pleaded guilty last year to a series of nighttime shootings, including at the Marine Corps museum in Quantico and military recruiting stations in Chantilly and Woodbridge that caused more than $100,000 in damage. No one was injured.
He was caught months later, in June 2011, after he was discovered trying to desecrate graves in Arlington National Cemetery. He also planned to leave bags of ammonium nitrate at the cemetery to induce fear.
The plea deal called for a non-negotiable 25-year sentence. But after pleading guilty, Melaku got new lawyers who uncovered evidence he was mentally ill. Government doctors have now also diagnosed him with schizophrenia.
Medical records cited in the court papers showed Melaku suffered from delusions that the 2010 shootings would allow him to reunite with a girl he knew in high school before the world came to an end in 2012. Doctors who evaluated Melaku at the federal medical prison in Butner, N.C., wrote that “Mr. Melaku consistently reported feeling threatened by God and believing he had to engage in certain behaviors or acts to ‘force God to stop the visions.’”
Still, having a mental illness -- even a severe one like schizophrenia -- is not the same as being able to demonstrate to a jury at trial that a person is legally insane, which under federal law requires clear and convincing proof that a defendant at the time of the offense did not appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct.
Had Melaku tried to break the plea deal, federal prosecutors indicated they were prepared to file charges that would have resulted in a mandatory minimum of 85 years if convicted on all counts.
Melaku's new attorney, Billy Martin, said Friday that he had discussed the issue at length with his client, and that Melaku decided for himself that he wanted to stick with the plea deal and the 25-year sentence.
Prosecutors said the sentence was appropriate. In court papers, they ascribed Melaku's motives not to mental illness but to anger at U.S. foreign policy. They cited FBI interviews with Melaku in which he said he wanted to send a message that the U.S. should not engage in wars against Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Yonathan Melaku is a self-radicalized terrorist who carried out a campaign of fear that escalated until his arrest,” U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Neil MacBride said after Friday's sentencing. “He took calculated steps to target specific military buildings, cover up his crimes, and plan even more destruction should his message not be heard.”
Melaku said little during Friday's hearing except to request that he serve his time at the federal medical prison in Butner, a request granted by U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee.
Melaku's family wrote to the judge saying their son began acting bizarrely after a tour of duty in the Marine Corps.
Melaku “is sick. He is not a terrorist,” the family wrote. “When he returned home (from the Marines), he was a different son.”
Lee called the crimes “a bizarre set of facts for a former U.S. Marine. ... You instilled fear in the public,” Lee said, likening the crimes to the 2002 sniper spree by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo that gripped the D.C. region with fear. “Obviously, you do not represent the Marines that most of us know.”