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Death penalty decision in Florida airport shooting suspect's case could take a year or more

  • Author: Paula McMahon, Sun Sentinel (South Florida)
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published March 15, 2017

Esteban Santiago is taken from the Broward County main jail as he is transported to the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Jan. 9. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via REUTERS)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It could take a year or more before prosecutors decide whether or not to seek the federal death penalty for the man accused of killing five people and injuring six others at Fort Lauderdale's international airport.

During a brief court hearing for Esteban Santiago on Wednesday, prosecutors said that the Washington, D.C.-based panel that advises the attorney general on capital cases wants detailed reports from the defense and prosecutors before making any decision.

In less complicated cases involving a single death and no mental health challenges, that process can take the defense eight months, Santiago's lawyers told the judge. But they said a year would be a more realistic estimate in such a complicated case, involving multiple deaths, serious mental illness and witnesses who reside in several different states.

Santiago, who turns 27 on Thursday, has been diagnosed by jail doctors with two serious mental health conditions: schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, according to court records. He has been taking medication for about a month.

Santiago appeared more engaged on Wednesday, looking around at the people, mostly reporters, in court. He was visibly trembling, as if he were very cold, and his face twitched occasionally.

He wore khaki jail scrubs and was handcuffed to a chain around his waist, with shackles on his ankles.

Santiago spoke briefly with the judge in court, haltingly telling her he understood what was happening in court and that the judge was checking "to see if I … take the medicine … to see if I'm mentally capable."

He told her he had no questions.

Santiago has pleaded not guilty to 22 federal charges linked to the Jan. 6 mass shooting.

Though the case is tentatively scheduled for trial in October, U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom acknowledged that it is likely to be delayed.

Because of concerns about Santiago's mental health, she said she will continue to hold monthly status hearings to check on him and keep the case moving forward as quickly as possible.

Santiago's defense team said he is no longer delusional and is taking an anti-psychotic drug, Haldol. They said they are confident that, despite his mental health problems, he is legally competent to stand trial. Legal competency requires a suspect to understand the nature of the charges against them, the possible consequences and to be able to help prepare a defense.

After his arrest, Santiago initially told the FBI he acted under government mind control, then claimed he was inspired to commit violence by the Islamic State extremist group, FBI agents testified.