A mentally ill graduate student from Saudi Arabia admitted Friday that he stabbed to death a professor he believed was part of a plot against him, a prosecutor in upstate New York said.
Abdulsalam al-Zahrani, 48, pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter in the killing of Binghamton University professor Richard Antoun in his office in 2009, said Broome County District Attorney Gerald Mollen. The plea bargain came after psychiatric experts determined al-Zahrani was schizophrenic but mentally competent to stand trial on an original charge of second-degree murder.
“There was no dispute he had a significant mental illness,” Mollen said, but that didn’t absolve him of responsibility for killing Antoun, 77, an emeritus professor of anthropology and expert on Middle East cultures.
“His belief was that the Saudi secret police were conspiring to ruin his life and have him returned to Saudi Arabia to be killed or tortured,” Mollen said.
He described Antoun as “a gentle, kindly Binghamton University professor who had helped Mr. al-Zahrani for years.”
But at some point, al-Zahrani came to believe the professor was part of the conspiracy against him.
In court Friday, al-Zahrani said he was provoked to the violent attack by a smile from Antoun.
“He believed the professor was laughing at him and mocking him,” Mollen said. “I’m not sure there was a single, pure motive. There were a lot of things going on.”
Mentally ill and afraid, al-Zahrani “wasn’t doing well in his studies in the anthropology department,” the prosecutor said.
He was running out of money and facing the possibility he wouldn’t be able to finish his dissertation, an academic failure Mollen said would likely have led to revocation of his student visa and return to his homeland, a deep fear.
Mollen said Antoun’s family was kept informed about the progress of the case and supported the plea deal. Al-Zahrani is expected to be sentenced Sept. 9 to 15 years in prison and then face deportation.
“This assures he never walks in America as a free man,” Mollen said.