HONOLULU — A Turkish man accused of inflight behaviour that prompted bomb-threat procedures and U.S. military fighter jets to escort the American Airlines plane to Hawaii is mentally competent to stand trial and must be detained without bail to protect the community, a federal judge in Honolulu ruled Thursday.
Anil Uskanli’s attorney, Richard Sing, had requested the mental competency and detention hearing to be closed to the public to protect Uskanli’s private mental health information.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth Mansfield initially granted the request. The Associated Press, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and other media objected to closing the hearing.
“The case against Mr. Uskanli is of significant public interest because it concerns the prosecution of a man whose alleged actions threatened the lives of people aboard an airliner, an incident that made news around the world,” said a letter from the AP, urging the judge not to limit the public’s right to court access without following proper procedures.
Uskanli, 25, tried to get to the front of the plane during the flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu on May 19, according to court documents. Flight and crewmembers feared his laptop contained explosives, said a criminal complaint charging him with interfering with a flight crew.
A flight attendant blocked his path to first class with a drink cart, and he was duct-taped to his seat until the plane landed.
The disturbance prompted the Hawaii National Guard to scramble two fighter jets to escort the plane to Honolulu.
Uskanli raised other red flags while still at Los Angeles International Airport before the flight took off: He had purchased a ticket at an airline counter in the middle of the night with no luggage and had been arrested after opening a door to a restricted area.
A federal judge in Hawaii ordered a mental competency evaluation after his defence attorney requested it.
On Thursday, when lawyers representing the media were prepared to argue against closing the courtroom, Sing withdrew the motion, saying his concerns could be addressed without closing the entire proceeding. That allowed the hearing to move forward in open court.
Sing told Mansfield he has no concerns about Uskanli’s competency.
Sing asked that Uskanli be released to the custody of his father, who had travelled to Hawaii from Turkey and was prepared to stay in a hotel or rent a residence where they could stay in Honolulu.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Morgan Early argued that would be dangerous for the community and for Uskanli, who suffers from a “major mental illness.”
“I don’t think we can release him to a hotel and hope for the best,” she said. She noted that he’s on four different medications, tried to flee when he was hospitalized for a portion of his mental health examination and was on suicide watch for four days.
Even though Sing promised that Uskanli’s father would manage his son’s medication and that Uskanli would check in weekly with court officials, Mansfield said there’s evidence that Uskanli poses a danger to the community.
Mansfield said Uskanli threatened to a kill an FBI agent after the plane landed in Honolulu, threatened to kill a forensic psychologist and threatened to burn down the Los Angeles federal detention centre where he was undergoing his mental health evaluation.