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Death penalty decision in Peoria rap music murder could take months

PHOENIX – It’s too early to tell if prosecutors will seek the death penalty for a man accused of fatally stabbing a West Valley teenager because he reportedly felt threatened by the rap music the youth was listening to, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said Thursday.

A day earlier, a grand jury indicted Michael Paul Adams on a first-degree murder charge in the July 4 killing of 17-year-old Elijah Al-Amin at a Peoria convenience store.

If convicted of the charge, Adams will be sentenced to life in prison without parole or death by lethal injection.

The attorney for Adams has said her client, who was released from prison two days before Al-Amin was killed, is mentally ill.

Elijah Al-Amin (Serina Rides via AP, File)

During a press conference Thursday, Montgomery said, as with all first-degree-murder cases, prosecutors will conduct a review to determine if they will seek the death penalty.

“It is at this point that we will look at all available evidence, including any allegations of mental health issues and evidence of hate towards Elijah,” Montgomery said of the review process.

Court records show that Adams served 13 months for aggravated assault on a corrections officer at a county jail. Adams was in jail because of a 2017 arrest on charges he waved a brick at a security guard and told him he would “put this brick through your face,” records show.

Jacie Cotterell, Adams’ attorney, told the judge at his initial appearance hearing last week that her client was mentally ill and had been released from prison without any medication, “no holdover meds, no way to care for himself.”

A former defense attorney, Josephine Hallam, said last October that Adams had been diagnosed as autistic and suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a “sensory processing disorder.” Adams believed the brick to have “magical” powers that would protect him, Hallam said.

Department of Corrections spokesman Bill Lamoreaux said in a statement that “the tragic death is terrible, and Mr. Adams will have to answer for his alleged actions.”

Lamoreaux said that when Adams was released he “was not designated seriously mentally ill” and that once the agency transported him from the state prison complex in Yuma to the Phoenix area where he lives, it “had no further legal authority over him.”

Montgomery acknowledged that mental health problems, in general, can complicate cases without speaking directly to the issue in this case.

Under state law, prosecutors have 60 days to file their intent to seek the death penalty, but Montgomery anticipates the deadline being extended through an agreement with the defendant.

The case has garnered national attention, with calls to prosecute the seemingly senseless death of a black teen at the hands of a white man as a hate crime. Even Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker has tweeted about it using the hashtag #JusticeforElijah.

However, Arizona doesn’t have a hate crime statute, although evidence of bias against a victim’s identity can be used to enhance the sentence.

“If we choose not to pursue the death penalty the case will still go forward as a first-degree murder case, with the natural life as the penalty that would be imposed following a conviction,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery got emotional when talking about Al-Amin’s death.

“What makes this offense so tragic is we had a 17-year-old who did absolutely nothing,” he said, choking up.

“As a father myself of a 16-year-old, I can’t imagine what this young man’s family is going through, and it is a significant loss to our community.”

Montgomery said he would not utter the defendant’s name during the press conference.

“Our community has lost forever what Elijah would have contributed, and it is his memory, his name that we should acknowledge and remember.

“Elijah Al-Amin did nothing to warrant the brutal and senseless attack that took his life in the early-morning hours just one week ago.”

There wasn’t any indication that the defendant was affiliated with any hate groups, Montgomery said.

“And we have seen no evidence of the adoption or proclamation by the defendant of white supremacist ideology,” Montgomery said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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