May 1, 2018 / 2:24 PM / in a year

Accused Florida airport shooter to avoid death penalty in plea deal

FILE PHOTO - Esteban Santiago is taken from the Broward County main jail as he is transported to the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S. on January 9, 2017. Courtesy Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via REUTERS/File Photo

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Reuters) - A U.S. Iraq war veteran agreed on Tuesday to plead guilty to killing five people at a Florida airport last year in exchange for prosecutors not pursuing the death penalty, a spokeswoman for federal prosecutors said.

Esteban Santiago, 28, is accused of opening fire in the baggage claim area of the Fort Lauderdale airport on Jan. 6, 2017. U.S. prosecutors said in federal court on Tuesday that they would not seek the death penalty for Santiago.

Santiago, who had served in the Puerto Rico and Alaska National Guard and was deployed to Iraq from 2010 to 2011, was accused of carrying out the attack with a handgun and ammunition he had checked in his luggage.

A federal judge at Tuesday’s court hearing in Miami said Santiago must undergo a mental health evaluation to determine whether he is competent to plead guilty to the killings, prosecutors’ spokeswoman Sarah Schall said in a phone interview.

Shortly after his arrest, Santiago told federal officials he participated in online jihadi chat rooms but federal investigators said there was no evidence of that, the Miami Herald reported.

Santiago previously had pleaded not guilty to 22 counts against him, including 10 that could have carried a death penalty or life sentence, she said.

In March 2017, a federal judge said Santiago was mentally fit to stand trial despite psychiatric health issues.

Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale; Editing by Bill Trott

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