The Sikh community in the US is disappointed with the unexpected reversal of the death penalty awarded to the killer of a Sikh gas station owner in the first wave of hate crimes following the 9/11 terror attacks five years ago.
Frank Silva Roque, who shot dead Balbir Singh Sodhi in Mesa, Arizona, will instead serve a life sentence without parole under a pronouncement by the Arizona Supreme Court on Monday.
The court accepted the defence plea that Roque's mental illness and low IQ were mitigating factors. A jury that handed the death penalty in October 2003 had rejected insanity plea, terming it a weak excuse for the brutal murder.
"Taken as a whole, the mitigation evidence here raises a substantial question whether death is an appropriate sentence," Vice Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch wrote, adding: "Because of the serious nature of Roque's crimes, however, we conclude that he should be imprisoned for the rest of his natural life and should never be released."
Sodhi, the first person to be gunned down in the aftermath of 9/11, had been “mistaken by Roque for an Arab”. It was followed by a large number of attacks on Sikh men across the US for they were mistaken to be followers of Osama bin Laden because of the turban and beard that they wore.
Commutations of the death penalty are rare in Arizona. Which is why some leading lights of the Sikh community are disappointed with the reversal of the death penalty which, they feel, will not be sending the right message to misguided perpetrators of hate crimes.
"After five years, it's a very confusing state for the Sikhs. After all, the Sodhi murder had become a test case and the Sikhs wanted a strong signal to be sent out to would-be perpetrators of hate crimes," said prominent Sikh leader Rajwant Singh. At the same time, he conceded that a section of the community did not want to whip up the court's reversal into a big issue.
Sodhi's family itself has opted to accept the verdict, but it has disputed the court's assertion that Roque was mentally ill. "As long as he is away from society and our family, it's fine," said Rana Singh Sodhi, the victim's brother. As for the insanity plea though, he commented: "I don't think mentally ill people can make those (deliberate decisions about) targets."