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Peter Odighizuwa is an accused murderer, sitting in a jail cell near Roanoke, Va. And to some watching his case, that’s only the beginning of who he is and what he has become. To them, he is also an example of the difficulties Nigerians face in assimilating to the United States. Or a reason why immigration to this country should be curtailed. Or a lesson in why it is safer for American citizens to have guns. In trying to understand, explain, and perhaps exploit the three murders that Odighizuwa allegedly committed earlier this year at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., lobby groups and cultural critics have made an example of the 43-year-old Nigerian former law student. His case has become a platform for the pro-gun forces and the anti-immigration front. It also has Nigerians in this country closely examining the pressure and frustration that come hand-in-hand with the immigrant experience. In January, Odighizuwa, after failing out of the law school for the second time, allegedly returned with a semiautomatic weapon and shot and killed the school’s dean, former Justice Department official L. Anthony Sutin, a professor, and a student while wounding two others. Last week, his lawyers asked a judge in Grundy to have Odighizuwa evaluated to determine whether he is mentally fit to stand trial. A hearing in the case is set for June 20. The request came after several weeks during which Odighizuwa refused to talk to his defense team. The accused gunman is being held at the New River Valley Regional Jail in Dublin, Va. While there, he wrote a six-page letter to Buchanan County Judge Patrick Johnson, the judge presiding in his case, asking for new lawyers, claiming his current ones were part of a government conspiracy. The lawyers, James Turk of Radford, Va., and Roger Groot, a law professor at Washington & Lee University, say that the letter is further evidence that Odighizuwa suffers from an “untreated, serious, and long-standing mental illness.” In his letter to the judge, Odighizuwa says he wants his case moved from Buchanan County because of concerns about “my race, ethnicity and national origin.” Negative publicity makes a fair trial in Grundy impossible, he writes. He also says his lawyers have refused to subpoena records from the FBI and CIA that would show those agencies targeted him for investigation. “This is causing me great concern of possible suppressing of evidence,” he writes. “He’s a very, very disturbed mentally ill man,” Turk says. “He suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.” Prosecutors have vowed to pursue the death penalty. Groot, who was appointed to serve as Odighizuwa’s death penalty counsel on the case, has another concern about his client’s defense. “Everybody has seized on this case,” Groot says. “And that worries me.” ASSIMILATION BLUES When Odighizuwa allegedly went on his shooting rampage Jan. 16, the incident didn’t look much different from similar horrifying events at schools across the nation. But two things have worked to set this episode apart: Odighizuwa’s nationality and the controversy over the manner in which he was apprehended. Odighizuwa’s Nigerian background has played into the hands of far-right critics of America’s open immigration policy, such as Warrenton, Va.-based VDARE, which, on its Web site, says “the white West welcomes losers and misfits like Mr. Odighizuwa into its midst, pretends they’ve assimilated, boasts about the ‘diversity’ we’re creating and ignores any and every indication that they don’t belong here and that their presence endangers others.” Meanwhile, other Nigerian immigrants in America empathize with the alleged killer. “I feel sorry for him,” says Chike Okafor, a Chicago banker who writes extensively about Nigerian issues on the Internet. Shortly after the shootings in Grundy, Okafor wrote an essay asking whether Odighizuwa’s actions meant Nigerians in America “were beginning to crack under [the] pressure” of the immigrant experience. He asked whether they were adopting their new nation’s culture “where guns are the instrument of conflict resolution.” “I am not giving an excuse for what [Odighizuwa] did,” Okafor said in an interview. “He should have thought twice before making his choice. If there is the ultimate penalty, that is something he will have to face.” But Okafor wonders whether Odighizuwa simply couldn’t handle the strain of trying to support his family in America. Nigerian culture, he says, requires that the man be “the breadwinner” of the family, both for his wife and children in the United States and for any extended family in economically depressed Nigeria. Okafor questions whether taking classes at the law school and working a part-time job, along with the stress caused by the language barrier in Grundy, was too much for Odighizuwa, the father of four children. “In Nigeria, when you have that kind of pressure, you have someone to lean on, you have a very strong family support system,” Okafor says. “Over here, you are more an individual. Nobody comes to help you.” But in Odighizuwa’s case, at least in Grundy, that may have not been true. While certainly an extreme minority in the Virginia coal mining town, he was often aided by fellow students and faculty, who allowed him to return to school after he flunked out for the first time. Tokunbo Awoshakin, a D.C.-based Nigerian writer, says that while he, too, condemns Odighizuwa’s alleged actions, the troubled student represents what “happens to people in a system where immigrants, especially Africans, are third-class citizens when they have gone to school or become naturalized citizens.” Like Okafor, Awoshakin suggests that Odighizuwa, a naturalized U.S. citizen, is part of a growing number of immigrants who can no longer cope with the pressures of being immersed in American life. And some, like Odighizuwa, may go “off the edge” without some kind of assistance or intervention. “There are no provisions for dealing with them while they are on the downward road to becoming fruitcakes,” Awoshakin says. SHOOTING BLANKS The gun-rights movement has adopted the tragedy in Grundy for its own purposes as well. Soon after the shootings, allegations circulated among gun-rights supporters nationwide that the media had suppressed a key element of the story: That Odighizuwa had been apprehended by two law students with handguns. The students, Tracy Bridges and Mikael Gross, had worked as police officers in North Carolina before moving to Grundy. Both said they ran to their cars and grabbed weapons when the shooting started on the second floor of the law school. They, along with two other students, approached Odighizuwa in front of the law school. Bridges and Gross both told reporters that they raised their guns at Odighizuwa and he dropped his weapon, after which the group tackled and handcuffed him. But Odighizuwa’s gun, authorities say, was already empty, and other witnesses have said the alleged shooter never even saw the other students’ guns before surrendering. (Bridges and Gross could not be reached for comment.) “This is a good example of what happens often,” says Patricia Gregory, a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association. “What gets the national coverage is that this nut went into a law school and killed people. But this guy was not a law-abiding gun owner, and he was apprehended by lawful gun owners. It’s the NRA story.” John Lott of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in the District, says that there were more than 280 stories on the Grundy shootings during the week after the incident, but only four carried details about the law students being armed. Lott, who studies issues involving media reporting and firearms, says the successful defensive use of guns goes frequently unreported, but says he isn’t sure why. “The bottom line isn’t why it’s done, but the impact it has on people,” Lott says. “You rarely hear about the benefits people have with guns. It colors people’s views of what can be done.” Aaron Zelman, executive director of the Wisconsin-based Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, is more certain. “It’s not by accident that it’s not getting reported,” he says. “The powers that be don’t want people thinking in terms of taking the law into their own hands.” But for Kent Markus, a professor at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, the embrace by gun-rights activists of the Grundy shootings has made a devastating incident’s irony even more profound. Markus was a close friend of Sutin, the dean who was murdered. Markus and Sutin worked together in the Justice Department in the 1990s, where Markus was charged with implementing the gun-regulating provisions of the Brady Law. Sutin, he says, “was deeply troubled by gun violence in our society. “The gun lobby, without much sensitivity or attention, has distorted what actually happened for their own political benefits,” Markus says. “I think it is a shameful exploitation of a tragedy.”

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