A young New York man caught boarding a plane on his way to Yemen to fight with an al-Qaida affiliate is a mixed-up teenager who was diagnosed with autism and didn't understand the gravity of what he was doing, his attorney told The Associated Press.
Justin Kaliebe, 18, pleaded guilty in a secret federal court proceeding in February to a charge of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization. He was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation before he is sentenced Sept. 27. His condition could be considered in determining his sentence; he faces up to 30 years in prison.
"Justin Kaliebe is a gentle, misguided, autistic teenager who does not have the ability to fully understand the magnitude and consequences of his actions," defense attorney Anthony La Pinta said in a statement to the AP.
La Pinta, who joined the defense team after the guilty plea was entered, said he has medical documents showing that Kaliebe was diagnosed with autism as a young child, but he would not release them.
Authorities have declined to say why the plea was entered in secret, though the move could mean Kaliebe was cooperating in the investigation when it was at a sensitive stage.Autism Speaks reports:
"Planned violence is very rare in autism and certainly not characteristic,” says psychiatrist Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele. Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele works with children and teens who have autism at the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network center at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville.
“As a spectrum disorder, autism is quite variable,” Dr. Veenstra-VanderWeele says. “But planned violence overall is less common, not more common, in people with autism. When stories like this emerge, it’s sometimes tempting to link a single person's actions to a larger group of people who share something in common.”
Most media reports have not made such implications – a possible reflection of increased awareness and understanding of autism spectrum disorders.