Crime

Taheri-Azar gets 26-33 years

Mohammed Taheri-Azar never looked at his family. He asked his lawyer not to speak on his behalf. He didn't apologize, or even make excuses.

"It's his desire that this matter be handled as expeditiously as possible," said Public Defender James Williams, who has represented the 25-year-old UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus ever since the young man drove a rented Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo into a crowd of people on campus two years ago.

Superior Court Judge Carl Fox asked Taheri-Azar whether he was sure he didn't want to fight for the shortest possible prison term.

"The defense rests, your honor," Taheri-Azar said, even before the prosecution presented any evidence to support a harsh sentence.

"You don't want him to call any witnesses on your behalf?" Fox asked.

"That is correct, sir."

"Is there any particular reason for that?" Fox asked.

"The defense rests, your honor," the young man repeated.

But his sister Leyedia, 23, could not resist. And, in the end, neither could Williams.

Leyedia Taheri-Azar tearfully took the witness stand, describing a brother who helped fix computer problems for his school and talked her through the assembly of her own computer from a phone at Dorothea Dix psychiatric hospital.

"Our parents are older, and they need their little boy," his sister pleaded. "He was a really naive kid who wouldn't hurt a fly."

Throughout Taheri-Azar's incarceration, family members have said a former family friend persuaded him to embrace radical Islamic beliefs. His sister repeated that Tuesday, explaining why he would have tried to kill Americans as vengeance against the U.S. government for killing Muslims around the world.

"He's -- once again -- not himself," she said.

Defense efforts

In the past, Williams has argued that Taheri-Azar is mentally ill. He has attempted suicide, tried to fire his lawyer and defend himself, and screamed curses in the courtroom. The results of his latest psychiatric evaluation never became public. Williams did not mention mental illness when, against Taheri-Azar's wishes, he presented mitigating factors to minimize the prison term.

"By the [plea] agreement itself, he's exposed himself to at least 20 years in prison," Williams said. "There is no sentence this court could impose that would not be a harsh sentence."

But Fox had listened to three witnesses, who described the psychological toll the crime had caused. They spoke of looking for large objects to duck behind in case a vehicle comes at them as they're walking down a sidewalk, and exercising irrational caution when using a crosswalk.

"I'm never going to be 100 percent sure again," said Susan Burgin, who was a UNC sophomore at the time.

"I look at every car driver with suspicion," said Karen Harman, whose leg was hit by the Jeep's tire. "Nothing will ever be the same. I no longer feel as safe in the world."

Before issuing his sentence, Fox pointed out that Harman's life was spared by just a few inches.

"One of the things our government won't tolerate -- and after 9/11 our citizens won't tolerate -- is trying to use Americans as punching bags or targets for terrorist acts or mindless acts," the judge said. "If you're anything like the rest of us, there will come a point in your life when you will truly regret [what you did].

"If you're going to say anything, the time to say it is now," Fox said.

"No, thank you, your honor," Taheri-Azar said.

"Sorry," whispered his aunt, who had traveled from California for the hearing. "Just say it, 'I'm sorry.' "

Taheri-Azar did not say it, and Fox sentenced him to the longest sentence allowed for two counts of attempted first-degree murder for a person with no prior felony record: 26 years, 2 months, to 33 years in prison.

"It's not fair," his aunt whispered, weeping.

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