Alleged FLL Airport Shooter Makes First Court Appearance

The Iraq war veteran held in the fatal shooting of five people inside Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport answered questions in a clear voice as he was appointed public defenders and told he could face the death penalty during his first appearance in federal court Monday.

Esteban Santiago entered court wearing shackles and a red jump suit. The hearing lasted 18 minutes, with Santiago telling Judge Alicia Valle he has no job and just $10 in the bank.

He said he had been in the Army, where he made about $15,000 a year. He mentioned expenses including $560 in monthly rent, plus phone and other utility bills. He said he owns no property and doesn't have a vehicle. He said he had worked for a security company, Signal 88, in Anchorage, Alaska, until November, making $2,100 a month.

Valle told Santiago the death penalty could apply in the case.

"We are telling you the maximum penalty allowed by law so that you understand the seriousness of the charges," the judge said.

Valle also appointed a public defender for Santiago, who remained seated throughout the hearing. After the hearing the court-appointed attorney said he had just met Santiago and had no comment.

Santiago will remain behind bars until his next hearing, scheduled for Jan. 17.

Santiago, a 26-year-old Iraq war veteran from Anchorage, Alaska, is charged with committing violence against people at an international airport resulting in death and with two firearms offenses.

Friday's shooting inside FLL claimed the lives of five people, while six others were shot and dozens more were treated for various injuries. The six injured people remained hospitalized at Broward Health Medical Center Monday.

NBC 6 cameras caught Esteban Santaigo being taken from the Broward Jail to federal court for his first hearing.

The hearing Monday in the Fort Lauderdale courtroom is only the beginning of what will likely be a lengthy journey through the federal court system.

Although the charges carry a potential death sentence, the Justice Department will decide later whether to pursue that penalty assuming Santiago is convicted. Many other issues can come into play, such as whether he decides to plead guilty or go to trial.

Guilty pleas usually do not result in death sentences. The airport violence charge allows a sentencing judge wide latitude in deciding how many years behind bars he might serve, all the way up to life in prison, if the death penalty is off the table.

Uphill at best. There are dozens of witnesses to the shooting and the FBI said in an affidavit that he told agents in a post-arrest interview how he planned the attack, what weapon he brought with him to Florida, how he loaded the gun from his checked luggage in an airport bathroom and came out firing.

There is also video surveillance of the shooting that shows the shooting and its aftermath. Santiago was arrested after running out of ammunition and lying spread-eagle on the floor until a deputy took him in to custody, his 9mm handgun nearby.

Santiago's attorney can ask for a mental competency evaluation to determine if he is fit to stand trial. It's a fairly high standard for any defendant to escape criminal charges because of mental problems because many defendants understand the difference between right and wrong.

The main issue for the court is whether a defendant is too impaired to assist in his own defense. Most defendants who go this route are ultimately judged fit for trial and the mental health issue becomes a major factor at sentencing.

They could. So far the case against Santiago is proceeding in the federal system. Theoretically the state could charge Santiago with five counts of first-degree murder - again punishable by death - as well as multiple counts of attempted murder and many other charges.

Broward County's chief prosecutor, Michael Satz, so far has not indicated one way or another if he will pursue a separate case. Because of several Supreme Court rulings, Florida's death penalty system is currently in limbo.

Federal prosecutors could obtain a new grand jury indictment charging Santiago with terror-related offenses, either adding them to the existing charges or substituting them. So far, FBI agents have said they have uncovered no evidence linking Santiago to international terrorism. He did tell authorities in Alaska, however, that U.S. intelligence agencies were directing him to take orders from the Islamic State terror group.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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