NEW YORK (AP) — A prosecutor told a jury Monday that a U.S. Air Force veteran wanted to join the Islamic State group and die a martyr, but a defense lawyer countered that the federal case was a fantasy.
The differing portrayals were offered during opening statements of the trial of Tairod Pugh, 48, in Brooklyn federal court. The trial is one of the nation's first involving an American charged with trying to join the militant group. The Justice Department has said it has brought over 70 cases throughout the country.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Bini told the anonymous jury that Pugh, of Neptune, New Jersey, flew to Turkey in January 2015 intending to travel to Syria and join the Islamic State.
"The defendant turned back on the country he once pledged to serve," Bini said, noting that Pugh was in the Air Force from 1986 to 1990, when he was trained to install and maintain aircraft engines and navigation and weapons systems.
Pugh destroyed four computer flash drives when he realized he was being scrutinized by authorities, he said.
He also said there was plenty of proof of Pugh's plans, including Facebook posts defending the Islamic State, numerous downloaded videos and literature about the group, and a letter he wrote to his wife saying in part: "There is only two possible outcomes for me: Victory or martyr."
Defense lawyer Eric Creizman said his client is innocent and went to Turkey to look for a job after losing his U.S. job as an aviation mechanic a month earlier. He said he never planned to go to Syria.
"He felt humiliated," Creizman said. "He felt moving to the Middle East would improve his life."
The lawyer said Pugh arrived in Turkey with a resume, letters of recommendation and his Air Force records, items he suggested would not endear him to the Islamic State if he tried to go to the Syrian border.
It's "not reasonable to believe that if he did that, he would leave in one piece," Creizman said.
He said Pugh was "deeply and personally opposed to violence against civilians" and believed the media had misled people into thinking terrorist acts, including the Sept. 11 hijackings, were carried out by al-Qaida or the Islamic State.
After asking his client to stand before jurors, Creizman warned them about the trial evidence, saying "some of these videos are revolting and the opinions he expresses are offensive."
But, he added: "None of this is illegal."
"The case is fantasy," he said, urging them to "protect him as a citizen under our Constitution."
"In this country, you don't punish a person for his thoughts," Creizman said.
This story has been corrected to show that Pugh's attorney said he went to Turkey, not Syria, to find a job.