When his uncle and friend listened to him rant about ISIS and the enemies of Islam, David Wright basked in their attention. When he antagonized people on social media and pretended to have inside knowledge of the Islamic State, he felt that same rush.
“I got a rise out of people,” Wright testified Wednesday before a rapt courtroom in the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in South Boston, where the Everett resident is on trial for conspiring to commit terrorism. “It gave me all the attention in the world. The more attention I got, the more I did it.”
Facing life in prison if convicted, Wright took the highly unusual step of testifying in his own defense, telling a federal jury he was never serious about following the Islamic State and was only “trash-talking” when he quoted their hateful ideology.
In 2015, Wright weighed more than 500 pounds and was unemployed. Now considerably slimmer, Wright, 28, calmly testified that his obesity, lack of career ambition, and isolation spurred him to adopt a larger-than-life persona in which he and his uncle, Usaamah Rahim, were Islamic State combatants ready to commit terrible acts of violence.
That fantasy came crashing down on June 2, 2015, Wright said, when he learned his uncle had been fatally shot by Boston police after he advanced on officers with a machete.
“I didn’t want my uncle to get hurt,” Wright said, as he began to weep. “I didn’t want law enforcement to get hurt. I lost someone who was very close to me because I was so deluded and self-centered that I couldn’t see beyond my own need for attention.”
Wright is accused of recruiting Rahim and another man, Nicholas Rovinski of Warwick, R.I., to pledge loyalty to the Islamic State and commit violence in its name. Rovinski, 26, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and is expected to be sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Dressed in a button-down shirt, navy blue sweater vest, and slacks, Wright said he reveled in the disbelief and anger of people who responded to his online posts about terrorism.
“Were you trying to get them to like ISIS?” his lawyer, Jessica Hedges, asked.
“No,” he said emphatically. “It was all about the attention . . . I held their attention, and I held them in suspense.”
It is rare for criminal defendants to testify. Lawyers often see it as a risky strategy that can expose the defendant to withering cross-examination by prosecutors.
At Wright’s trial, which began three weeks ago, prosecutors have presented substantial computer evidence showing that he promoted the Islamic State, justified the killing of Americans, and discussed beheading Pamela Geller, an outspoken critic of Islam who became a target of terrorist groups in 2015 when she held a cartoon contest making fun of the Prophet Muhammad.
John Amabile, a veteran criminal defense lawyer, said the decision to put Wright on the stand was probably intended to show he was not criminally motivated.
“Given the evidence that the government introduced, it seems to make sense that the defendant would offer his explanation for what those words meant and what those intentions were,” Amabile said. “If the client is able to do that in a persuasive manner, it could be very helpful to the defense.”
Wright testified that when his uncle called him the morning of June 2, 2015, to tell him he was going to kill a police officer, he “didn’t think he was serious.”
Hedges asked him if he wanted to behead Geller.
“No, absolutely not,” Wright said.
“Did you want to hurt anyone?” Hedges asked.
“No,” he replied.
The decision to put Wright on the stand gave Assistant US Attorney B. Stephanie Siegmann the opportunity to remind the jury of the conversation the FBI recorded between him and his uncle the morning of June 2, when Rahim, who was being monitored by law enforcement, told Wright about his plans to kill police officers.
“This is such a beautiful, beautiful moment in time,” Wright said on the recording.
“At no time did you say this is just a joke, did you?” Siegmann asked.
She also referenced the 92 videos found on his computer, including graphic footage of the killing of a Jordanian fighter pilot captured by ISIS in 2015.
“You watched the pilot being burned alive five times,” Siegmann said. Wright acknowledged he watched it several times but said he could not remember how many.
Wright remained calm during cross-examination. He rebuffed Siegmann’s attempts to paint him as an ISIS supporter, reiterating that he was motivated only by a need for attention.
The prosecutor forcefully opened an evidence box and pulled out large knives Rahim bought before he died. The knives were for Wright, Rahim, and Rovinski to kill Geller, prosecutors allege.
“These are real, aren’t they?” she asked Wright. Yes, he said.Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.