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Did hate or derangement drive a onetime knife salesman to stab a rabbi?

There are many questions that surround the disastrous stay of Khaled Awad in the United States, which culminated on a grey Boston afternoon, when he pulled out a knife and plunged it, nine times, into a local rabbi.

Why did a Florida judge release Awad less than three months before the attack? Why did Awad then move from Tampa to Boston? Did the Cutco knives he sold to make extra money while studying in Florida figure into the attack? And who was the mysterious person his mother said he saw to help with his psychological stress?

Awad, 24, is now in custody, facing felony assault and other charges for the July 1 incident that left Rabbi Shlomo Noginski, a Chabad day school staff member, with serious wounds to his arms, legs and chest. So the most pressing question is the one now facing Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Diane Freniere: Did Awad, a man known to have frequently voiced antisemitic beliefs and one who was previously released from criminal charges for mental incompetency, commit a hate crime — or is he too mentally ill to be held responsible?

It’s not the first time this question has reared its head after a heinous crime of violence against Jews; or, for that matter, against Blacks or other minorities.

“Freud himself explored antisemitism as a combination of mental illness and social phenomenon,” observed Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust historian who helped create the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Generally, defense attorneys say they must meet a high bar to win an acquittal on the basis of mental illness for someone charged with serious crimes like murder or attempted murder. But Massachusetts, where Awad will be tried, is one of 11 states where the burden is on the prosecution to disprove a claim of insanity rather than on the defense to prove it.

“It’s extremely difficult for a prosecutor to prove someone is not so impaired that they are unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct,” said Paul Applebaum, a forensic psychiatrist and former director of the Law and Psychiatry Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Awad attacked Noginski outside this Chabad house in Brighton.

Awad attacked Noginski outside this Chabad house in Brighton. Image by facebook

Summer had just begun when Awad, who reportedly lived in a small brick apartment building a five-minute walk away, approached Noginski as he stood on the steps of Shaloh House, a Jewish day school established in 1962. The school now serves about 100 elementary students in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood.

A thick beard, black coat and skullcap announced Noginski, a 41-year-old Russian-born father of 12, as Jewish to the world. The large menorah in front of the building identified the school, where 100 children were in a camp program, as Jewish, too.

According to an indictment prosecutors filed Aug. 26, Awad, who had immigrated from Egypt a few years before, drew a gun on the rabbi and demanded the keys of a school van nearby. But when Noginski offered him the keys, the indictment says, Awad put the gun away, pulled out a knife and indicated he wanted the rabbi to get into the vehicle. Instead, Noginski ran. Awad gave chase and stabbed Noginski nine times, including at least once close to his heart.

Boston police soon found Awad in a nearby alleyway, where he pulled the gun on them, the indictment says. The officers talked him into throwing the gun down, but Awad then physically resisted arrest.

Noginski, meanwhile, was taken to a local hospital, and released the next day to recover at home. The injuries were serious, “but it could have been so much worse,” the rabbi said in a videotaped statement he released soon afterwards, describing his survival as “a miracle.”

Rabbi Noginksi in the hospital.

Rabbi Noginksi in the hospital. Image by facebook

Initially, Awad was arraigned on charges of assault and battery. But after a swelling outcry from the Jewish and broader Boston community, the district attorney, Rachael Rollins, announced July 8 that she would also prosecute the case as a hate crime.

“We believe this violent attack was rooted in antisemitism,” Rollins said in a statement. “We are going to call that out and charge that specifically. We want the Jewish community to know that they are safe, valued, and will be protected.”

But from the beginning, Awad’s court-appointed attorney questioned his mental fitness to face the charges. The lawyer, Stephen Weymouth, requested a competency hearing, and at Awad’s initial arraignment on July 8, a court clinician reported that he was bipolar and had been off his medication at the time of the attack.

Judge ​​David Donnelly ordered that Awad be held for observation in Bridgewater State Hospital, which houses the criminally insane and those whose sanity is being evaluated by the criminal justice system. At an Aug. 26 hearing, his current attorney, Janice Bassil, filed a sworn affidavit stating that Awad had been “preliminarily diagnosed with schizophrenia and/or schizoaffective disorder,” according to the Boston Jewish Journal. Awad is on medication that “seems to stabilize him,” she added, but there were issues regarding “a severe physical reaction” to the medication that required him to be hospitalized.

Bassil declined to make Awad himself available for an interview.

In her affidavit, she said that when she met with Awad, he “rocked back and forth in his chair. He could not sustain eye contact.”

In an interview, Bassil also said that the gun Awad pulled on both the rabbi and the police was not a real gun, though she was “not sure what it was made of.”

A spokesperson for the prosecutor did not respond to several inquiries about the gun Awad used, and said the office was “not able to obtain” details about the make of the knife. They declined to discuss the case or their strategy with a reporter.

Neither Rabbi Noginski, the police officers nor any witnesses ever suggested that Awad made anti-Jewish utterances during his attack. That would have been the strongest evidence to support a hate-crime charge. But lawyers who have handled other hate-crime cases said the suspect’s history of antisemitism could come into play.

For example, there is a former Jewish roommate, Aidan Severt Anderson, who told the Forward that he frequently heard Awad spout anti-Jewish rhetoric, “He might have said something to the effect that you can never trust a Jew, etc,.” he said when asked for specifics.

Khaled Awad

In early 2019, Anderson was a student in cellular and molecular biology looking for a place to live near the University of South Florida campus in Tampa. He stumbled onto a room vacancy in apartment 638 in the On50 Apartments off-campus, and quickly signed a lease and moved in.

Anderson said he hardly ever saw one of his new apartment-mates, a student who seemed to never leave his room. The other was Awad, then a chemical engineering student who, Anderson said, earned pocket money selling knives for the Cutco Knife Company.

(A Cutco spokesman did not respond to an emailed question about how they might have vetted a salesperson like Awad. “We were saddened upon hearing of this horrible act,” said the public-relations manager, Joel Koncinsky. “Our thoughts are with both the Jewish community at large and our internal Jewish community.”)

Anderson’s mother is Jewish, and he considers himself a “Jewish atheist.” He never hid that from Awad as they became friends, “but he kind of had resistance to that knowledge.” Anderson said of Awad.

“We’d have conversations about this,” Anderson said. “I figured it was because he was a foreign national, from Egypt,” he added, “that he came from a country with certain attitudes — ones that were a little bit hostile, probably.”

For a while, Anderson and a good friend of his, Eric Valiente, hung out with Awad. “I would have left if he was extremely hostile,” Anderson said. And then one day, he was.

In October 2020, Anderson said, he and Awad were arguing about some petty household chore when suddenly his apartment-mate “got in my face.” Awad did not say anything antisemitic, he recalled, but he did grow violent.

“I tried to get him away,” Anderson said. “But he tackled me to the floor.”

A friend in the building complex heard the ruckus, and helped drag Anderson out of his apartment.

Anderson moved out within days and, unnerved, got a restraining order prohibiting Awad from having any further contact with him.

Awad generally respected the restriction, Anderson said. But some time around March 2021, Anderson responded to a knock on his door to find Awad in the entranceway, apparently having been evicted for inability to pay his rent.

“He told me he was in trouble and needed a place to stay,” Anderson recalled. “I didn’t freak out. I just said, ‘You’re not supposed to be here. I can’t talk to you. And you’re not supposed to talk to me’.”

Then, Anderson said, “he just left.”

Neither he nor Valiente heard anything about Awad again until this summer, first from reporters doing stories on the Boston attack, and then from police and FBI investigators.

Valiente told CBS’s Boston affiliate that Awad was “violent” and “very much antisemitic.”

“He would tell all types of Jewish jokes,” he explained. “I thought he was joking at first, and then I started to see the seriousness in his comments.”

One of the things the investigators contacting him wanted to know, Anderson recalled, was whether Awad was sane. He was a chemical engineer, Anderson said he told them. He had decent grades and was about to graduate. “He went up and down sometimes,” Anderson told me. “But I think he had all his marbles.”

Media coverage in Egypt of Awad’s arrest revealed little about his life or his family back home — or whether the environment in which he grew up was, indeed, as Anderson assumed, “a little bit hostile, probably” toward Jews.

In print and video interviews, his mother, Eman Saeed, said that Awad is the oldest of five brothers whose father died some years ago, and that his dream was to study in America.

“I raised him with morals and to be interested in his studies only,” she told the Egyptian news outlet “Everyone who knows him well will testify to this.”

Awad’s mother, Eman Awad, in an interview with Al-Masr news in Egypt.

Awad’s mother, Eman Awad, in an interview with Al-Masr news in Egypt. Courtesy of Ahl Masr News

While Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said after Awad’s arrest that he had come to the United States on a student visa in 2019, Awad’s mother has said in different interviews that her son left Egypt in 2016 or 2017 to enroll in the University of Toledo. He earned good grades there, she said, then transferred to the University of South Florida in 2019 out of a desire “to enroll in a higher ranking university.”

In Florida, Awad found few friends, his mother said. But in the small circle around him was a roommate — presumably Anderson — “who I recently discovered was Jewish,” she said.

It was in late 2020, Saeed told Egyptian news outlets, that she noticed a change in her son. “I felt that he was psychologically stressed,” she said. It was also in late 2020 that he had “a problem” with his “friend of a Jewish nationality.”

“Unfortunately, he did not tell me details about this problem so as not to concern me,” Saeed said, adding that “he moved to Boston to be near someone who offered to help him.”

“The person informed me that Khaled seemed depressed, in a bad psychological state,” she said, without identifying the person, who she said had been interviewed by the police. “He had a feeling that he was being subjected to injustice.”

When Awad moved to Boston is unclear, but it had to be after April 20, the day that a Florida judge dismissed two misdemeanor theft charges against Awad, finding him mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Records obtained from the district attorney’s office in Hillsborough County, where Tampa lies, read like markers on a roadmap of Awad’s deterioration.

On Nov. 1, 2020, Awad was arrested for petty theft after allegedly starting a fight with strangers in front of a laundromat — and then stealing an electronic credit card reader worth $180 from one of them.

On Nov. 18, Awad was arrested in another local store for allegedly taking several items and “consuming them on the property without paying for them.” Total value of the items: $11.74.

On Nov. 30, Awad’s public defender raised the issue of mental competency in a court hearing. At a hearing on Jan. 19, 2021, a judge agreed he was incompetent to stand trial and ordered Awad’s transfer to Gracepoint, a Tampa mental health facility, for treatment. At a second hearing, on April 20, the court found Awad remained unfit for trial despite treatment and dismissed the charges against him “without prejudice”— meaning that they could be brought back against him at some later date if he were ever found competent to stand trial.

Khaled Awad

“Obviously, no judge was going to commit him to treatment in a mental institution for $50,000 after an alleged theft worth $11.74,” said Grayson Kamm, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office in Tampa.

Now Awad is being evaluated again, in Boston, both to see whether he was sane enough at the time of the July 1 stabbing to understand and control what he was doing, and whether he is competent now to stand trial.

As a legal concept, “not guilty by reason of insanity” is a verdict that angers many people, who worry it allows dangerous felons to get away with crimes.

Defense attorneys have, for example, argued in some homicide cases that their clients were driven into states of temporary insanity by interactions with gay or transgender individuals, sending them into supposed “gay panic” or “trans panic,” terms that themselves cause outrage.

These claims have not led to any outright acquittals. But several self-confessed killers have succeeded in getting their charges reduced by making such arguments.

Perhaps the most famous such case came in the 1978 assassinations of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco City Council member and gay-rights activist, and the city’s mayor George Moscone. Their killer, Milk’s city council colleague Dan White, used the so-called “Twinkie defense” to successfully get a pre-mediated murder charge reduced to voluntary manslaughter.

More recently, Grafton Thomas, who attacked a Chanukah party in the Orthodox enclave of Monsey, N.Y., in 2019, was found not guilty by reason of insanity. In that case, the prosecutor ultimately supported the court’s ruling.

Michael Sussman, a civil rights attorney who was included in the Forward’s annual list of 50 influential Jews in 2011, dismissed the concern that insanity defenses pose any kind of threat to the cause of justice.

“The defendant’s mental illness must be pervasive,” Sussman noted. That means, he said, “an inability to focus, having visions, hearing voices; a state of mind that would preclude a long-term plan.”

Sussman said he could not properly assess the likelihood of Awad being able to sustain an insanity defense.

“I don’t know this Egyptian guy; I can’t say if there was some nexus between his mental illness and his fixation on Jews,” Sussman said. “Could they be connected? Yes. Could it be focused on a religious group? Sure. But could that be a successful defense? It depends.”

To determine this, Awad will now undergo additional mental-health observation. A dangerousness hearing has been scheduled for Sept. 28. His defense attorneys and prosecutors will then likely argue about his condition during hearings that may feature dueling medical experts.

This being Massachusetts, the burden of proof will be on the prosecutors. If he is found mentally incompetent to stand trial, experts said, he would likely be committed to a mental-health institution until treatment enables him to participate in his own defense — if it ever does.

In that event, there will still be intense arguments about his state of mind at the time of the attack itself.

Did Awad consciously and deliberately choose a target who embodied the religious group he appears to have detested? Or were his actions beyond his ability to control?

Khaled Awad at his arraignment.

Khaled Awad at his arraignment. Image by facebook

Even if the court found him to have been suffering mentally during the stabbing, it would have choices. He could be found not guilty due to insanity, and then released if he were ever found to be cured. Or, as in the case of Dan White, he could be sentenced on a reduced charge.

He is, in any case, unlikely to be free anytime soon.

“We have to be careful,” said Berenbaum, the Holocaust historian, “that there’s no license to attack Jews and get out of jail free.”

If you visit the website of the Shaloh School now, more than two months after the attack, you will see at the top of the page an image of Rabbi Noginski laying on a hospital bed, eyes closed shut, with tangles of tubes coming out from under his pajamas. “Donate To Rabbi Shlomo Noginski’s Fund” exhorts a large headline.

Paramedics treat Rabbi Noginski after stabbing.

Paramedics treat Rabbi Noginski after stabbing. Image by facebook

Fundraising tied to the attack on Noginski has so far netted the school $900,000, according to Dan Rodkin, Shaloh House’s executive director. The lion’s share comes from Robert Kraft, the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots, and two other major contributors, he said. But funds have also poured in from “parents, from the community and from all over the world.”

He said the money would fund a rabbinical school and dormitory that would also serve as a residence for Noginski and his family.

“Every year, we’ll ordain eight rabbis” from this program, he added, which together with Noginski’s presence in the residence will constitute a response to the nine stab wounds.

“It’s a nice way to increase our activities, to show we’re not scared,” Rodkin said. “We’re not running away.”


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