TAMPA — While defense experts say Sami Osmakac suffers from serious mental illness, one psychologist conceded it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between mental illness and religious extremism.
The prosecution rested Thursday morning in Osmakac’s trial on charges he tried to launch a multi-pronged terrorism attack in Tampa, including a car bomb, grenades, an automatic rifle and a suicide vest. As part of his plan, Osmakac wanted to demand the release of Muslim prisoners.
In surveillance recordings played during the trial, Osmakac can be heard frequently espousing his beliefs about “kafir,” or infidels, a label he used on everyone from Americans in general to his own family, as well as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, which he criticized as not being devout enough.
The Tampa attack was thwarted, according to the prosecution, because Osmakac’s arms supplier turned out to be an undercover FBI agent.
But according to the defense, Osmakac was entrapped by the agent and a paid informant who exploited Osmakac’s mental illness, religious extremism and poverty to induce him to try something he otherwise never would have done.
Defense experts testified Thursday that Osmakac suffers from various mental illnesses. A psychiatrist, George Northrup, diagnosed him as having schizo-affective disorder, while a psychologist, Valerie McClain, said he suffers from recurrent major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and psychotic disorder.
Both experts said Osmakac’s religious extremism and ideas about martyrdom are features of his mental illness.
Northrup said people with psychotic disorders, including schizo-affective disorder, are often obsessed with religion. “Religiously preoccupied is a term you often see on psychiatric charts in any mental health hospital,” he said.
Northrup said that when Osmakac’s family tried to get him to see a doctor, he refused because he said doctors would kill him. This, Northrup said, was evidence of psychotic thinking.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Sweeney pressed McClain about whether Osmakac’s religious beliefs were just strongly held beliefs, as opposed to mental illness. For instance, she asked whether Catholics who believe Communion is the body of Christ are delusional. No, McClain said, they are just following their religion.
So how, Sweeney asked, is Osmakac’s belief regarding martyrdom not consistent with his professed religion?
McClain said Osmakac’s extreme beliefs didn’t appear until later in life when he was in the throes of mental illness. But, she added, “The distinction between extreme religious beliefs and practices and psychosis is hard to make.”
McClain and Northrup both cited an experience Osmakac had in 2009 when he was on a plane that traveled through turbulence in 2009, returning with his family from Europe. McClain said Osmakac feared for his life during that flight and afterwards began to develop PTSD.
McClain said Osmakac also had some latent PTSD before that, as the result of his early childhood in war-torn Kosovo.
Defense lawyer George Tragos told U.S. Circuit Judge Mary Scriven that he wanted to present testimony from the defendant’s brother, Abni, about the plane flight and other things, including seeing the defendant talking to himself. But Osmakac directed the lawyer not to call his brother as a witness.
Outside the presence of the jury, Scriven asked Osmakac about that and warned him he could not later complain that his lawyer failed to call his brother as a witness. Osmakac said he understood, and he still insisted his lawyer not call his brother to testify.
Also on Thursday, a juror was removed from the case after notifying the court that he knew McClain. The juror, a lawyer, said he has done work with the firm McClain used to work for, and he said he had heard she was well respected.
After Assistant U. S. Attorney Sara Sweeney told U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven she was concerned about the juror’s ability to be fair, the judge excused the juror from service, substituting one of the six alternates.
As he was leaving the courthouse, the juror declined to talk to reporters, saying he couldn’t give an opinion about the case because the defense had just started.