The Arizona Supreme Court on Monday overturned a man's death sentence and instead sentenced him to natural life in prison without possibility of release for the murder of an Indian immigrant just days after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
The Supreme Court unanimously upheld Frank Silva Roque's convictions for murder and other crimes that included attempted murder, drive-by shooting and endangerment. The court also upheld prison sentences that add up to 36 years for the other crimes.
Roque was convicted of killing Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Mesa gas station owner whom prosecutors said was targeted because Roque thought Sodhi was Arab. Sodhi wore a turban and beard as part of his Sikh faith.
After shooting Sodhi on Sept. 15, 2001, Roque shot at another gas station where the clerk was a man of Lebanese descent, and shot at the home of an Afghan family. They were not injured.
"I'm a patriot," Roque told officers the day of his arrest, according to police reports.
Sodhi's death touched off protests in India and prompted India's prime minister to call President Bush. About 3,000 people also attended a memorial service for Sodhi at the Phoenix Civic Plaza shortly after he was killed.
The Supreme Court said it overturned the death sentence because of "substantial mitigating evidence" that included Roque's low IQ and experts' testimony that Roque was either insane or suffering a mental disorder.
"Because of the serious nature of Roque's crimes, however, we conclude that he should be imprisoned for the rest of his natural life and never be released," Vice Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch wrote for the court.
Roque expressed remorse during his 2003 sentencing hearing. "Just that I'm sorry that all this happened," Roque told Judge Mark Aceto of Maricopa County Superior Court.
Lakhwinder "Rana" Singh Sodhi, a brother of the victim, said Monday that family members respect the criminal justice system and accept the Supreme Court's ruling.
"I think justice is still served because he spends life in prison. It's not as though he's free and on the street hurting somebody else," he said during an interview.
The brother said he doesn't believe Roque was mentally ill. "He targeted certain people. That made it very clear he was doing a hate crime."
Practiced shooting, reloading
One of Roque's attorneys in the Maricopa County Public Defenders Office declined immediate comment Monday on the ruling. His second attorney did not immediately return a call for comment.
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office had no immediate comment, a spokesman said.
During Roque's trial, defense attorneys argued that their client suffered from a mental illness and that the terrorist attacks triggered an episode of insanity. They sought unsuccessfully to have him ruled guilty-but-insane, which would have forced him into a mental hospital.
Prosecutor Vince Imbordino said during the trial that Roque was motivated by anger and hatred following the terrorist attacks, not insanity. Roque took the time to practice shooting and reloading his weapons before killing Sodhi, the prosecutor said.