A Massachusetts man accused of participating in a plot to behead conservative blogger Pamela Geller was an overweight attention-seeker who became consumed by Islamic State group propaganda in a desperate bid to escape his own bleak reality, his defense attorney said Wednesday.
Federal authorities say David Wright conspired with his uncle and a third man to kill Geller, who angered Muslims when she organized a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas. The plot was never carried out. Wright also wanted to carry out other attacks in the U.S. and encouraged his uncle to kill police officers, officials say.
Wright's attorneys sought to portray him as a lost young man who had poor judgment but is not a criminal. When Wright was allegedly plotting with the other men, he weighed more than 500 pounds, lived with his mother and had no career, his attorney said during her opening statement. In the online world of the Islamic State group, he found acceptance and an escape, Jessica Hedges said.
In-depth news coverage of the Greater Boston Area.
But it was only talk, she said.
"In 2015, David felt very, very fat, very failed, and was living in a world of fantastical ideas," Hedges told jurors at the federal courthouse in Boston. "He hid behind screens, looking for an escape, looking for a distraction from who he really was."
Wright is charged with conspiring to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization and conspiring to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries, among other crimes.
Prosecutors said Wright, his uncle, Usaamah Rahim, of Boston, and another man agreed to kill Geller in the summer of 2015 after the cartoon contest in suburban Dallas, Texas. Two men opened fire outside the contest and wounded a security guard before they were killed in a shootout with law enforcement assigned to guard the event.
In May of that year, Wright met with Rahim and Nicholas Rovinski, of Warwick, Rhode Island, for more than two hours on a secluded Rhode Island beach and discussed plans to kill Geller, according to the indictment.
Days later, Rahim told Wright he couldn't wait to attack Geller and decided instead to go after "those boys in blue," referring to police, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Siegmann told jurors Wednesday.
Wright encouraged his uncle to attack police and die a "martyr" and instructed him to destroy his cellphone and wipe all the data from his computer, Siegmann said. That same day, Rahim was approached by officers in a Boston parking lot and was fatally shot after he pulled out a knife and moved toward them, officials say.
Authorities say Rahim received instructions about the plot to kill Geller from Junaid Hussain, an Islamic State member and hacker who was later killed in an airstrike in Syria. Rahim then passed along Hussain's instructions to Wright, prosecutors say.
The prosecutor said Wright wanted to wage additional attacks in the U.S. and inflict more damage than was caused by the Boston Marathon bombing because, in his words, "that was not sufficient." Wright told another person online that he was one of dozens of Islamic State fighters in the U.S. who were ready to act, Siegmann said. The person Wright was chatting with was secretly working for the FBI and is expected to testify in Wright's trial.
"The evidence will be overwhelming that the defendant was committed to murdering U.S. citizens," Siegmann said.
Wright, who wore a blue collared shirt and black vest, looked down at a table and showed little emotion while the lawyers spoke.
His attorney conceded that many of the things Wright read and said are "upsetting." But Wright never injured anyone and his words alone are not enough to convict him, she said.
"Freedom of speech matters in the United States," Hedges said. "We can be incredibly angry at what someone reads, what someone says and what someone talks about and not convict them as a criminal for it," she said.
Rovinski pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges last year.