Judge says accused Florida airport shooter is mentally sound for trial

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[March 16, 2017]  By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) - An Iraq war veteran accused of killing five people in a shooting at a Florida airport this year appears mentally fit to stand trial despite psychiatric health issues, a federal judge said on Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom said she would not order a mental competency evaluation for Esteban Santiago after his lawyers said he was taking prescribed anti-psychotic medication and participating in his defense.

"He has been increasingly engaged and present during each of his sessions with his lawyers," said Bloom, who sits in the Southern District of Florida in Miami.

Santiago, 26, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder after his arrest, according to court documents.

Authorities say he opened fire in the baggage claim area of the Fort Lauderdale airport on Jan. 6 in one of the nation's most recent deadly mass shootings.

Santiago has pleaded not guilty to 22 criminal charges, including violence at an airport causing death and injury, and firearms crimes.

Bloom told Santiago she would hold monthly status hearings to ensure that he continues taking his medication and remains competent.

Santiago, shackled and in a beige jumpsuit, said he understood the hearings were intended "to see if I'm mentally capable for trial."

If convicted, he could be punished by life imprisonment or death. The U.S. attorney general ultimately would decide whether to seek a death sentence.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors said in court it could take as long as a year to vet the factors involved in that decision.

A trial scheduled for October could be delayed, Bloom said.

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Esteban Santiago, is shown in this booking photo provided by the Broward County Sheriff's Office in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, January 7, 2017. Courtesy Broward County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS

A private first class in the National Guard who served in Iraq from 2010 to 2011, Santiago traveled from Alaska to Florida on a one-way airline ticket with a handgun and ammunition in his checked luggage, according to authorities.

He claimed his gun case upon arrival and loaded the weapon in a men's bathroom, investigators said in a criminal complaint. Santiago opened fire on the first people he saw after leaving the restroom, it said.

Authorities said Santiago aimed at victims' heads and bodies until he ran out of ammunition and was taken into custody. Six people also were wounded in the attack.

Santiago told investigators he was inspired by the Islamic State militant group and had previously chatted online with Islamist extremists, according to FBI testimony previously presented in court.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Writing by Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Leslie Adler)

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