Phoenix Man Sentenced To Death for 9-11 'Backlash Attack'

John Gilliland | Correspondent | Friday, October 10, 2003

Phoenix Man Sentenced To Death for 9-11 'Backlash Attack'

( - A jury in Mesa, Ariz., took just six hours Thursday to decide on the death penalty for a man it earlier convicted of murdering an Indian gas station owner in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks. The killer, 44-year old Frank Roque, mistook the victim, an Indian Sikh, for an Arab.

The jury was told that Roque drove to Balbir Singh-Sodhi's Mesa gas station four days after the Sept. 11 attacks and shot him five times. Prosecutors said Roque mistook Singh-Sodhi for an Arab because he was wearing a turban and a beard.

Roque's lawyers pleaded with the jury to spare his life, blaming Roque's crime on everything from alcoholism to insanity.

During closing arguments in the penalty phase of the trial, Roque's lawyer, Daniel Patterson, said several experts agreed that Roque suffered from some form of mental illness at the time of his crime. "Frank's conduct is at the extreme range of normal,"
Patterson quoted one psychiatrists as saying. "You could just as easily say it was on the low end of crazy," Patterson told the jury.

But Deputy Maricopa County Attorney Vincent Imbordino told jurors that racism, not insanity, motivated Roque to kill Singh-Sodhi. Imbordino replayed videotape of police questioning Roque just hours after the shooting. Roque tells then, "I bet you this s***'s going on across the nation. Ask the 10-to-15,000 people that died. It wasn't me."

Prosecutors called Singh-Sodhi's son Sukhwinder to the stand. He described his family's flight from religious persecution in their native India in the 1990's and how the family worked night and day to make their American dream come true.

Sukhwinder cried as he described the void in his family caused by his father's death. "He was everything to me - my father, my friend. I feel 10 years older," Sukhwinder said. He recounted one of the last things his father did was to give all the money in his pocket, $75 dollars, to a charity helping 9-11 victims.

To get the death penalty, prosecutors had to prove at least one aggravating factor in the case.

On Monday, the jury agreed on one aggravating factor: They decided Roque had put a bystander's life at risk when he opened fire on Singh-Sodhi. Had the jury decided there were one or more mitigating factors that outweighed the aggravating factor, Superior Court Judge Mark Aceto could have sentenced Roque to as little as 25 years in prison, or to as much as life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Without a mitigating factor, jurors were forced to sentence Roque to die. Arizona state law mandates an appeal. If that appeal fails, Roque will die by lethal injection.

Phoenix Sikh leader, Guru Roop Kaur Khalsa, says that the community accepts the jury's verdict, noting "whatever they had decided, the punishment will cleanse Roque's karma and prepare him for the afterlife."

Kaur Khalsa says that, unlike some faiths, Sikhs are "required to abide by the laws of whatever land they live in and to believe that those laws are just." Kaur Khaalsa adds there is no official Sikh stricture against the death penalty.

Singh-Sodhi's killing has been described as a "backlash crime," one of dozens reported in the months following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Though most attacks are limited to slurs and gestures, the potential for violence worries many Indians and Arabs living in America.