UPDATE 6:20 p.m. - After deliberating for over four hours, the jury recessed around 6:15 p.m. It will reconvene Wednesday at 9 a.m. to continue deliberations, according to Wayne Kirwan, a spokesman for the state's attorney's office.
In a stark white courtroom, crowded with about 50 people, attorneys presented their cases in closing arguments of the State vs. Wael Ali. Ali sat stone-faced in the defendant’s chair. Behind him a group of his friends and families gathered in support.
“The wrath of brothers is fierce and devilish,” declared James Dietrich, the senior state’s attorney, at the start of his closing arguments Tuesday.
Dietrich systematically attempted to show the jury that Wael was the only person who could have killed his twin brother, Wasel.
Wael blamed Wasel, said Dietrich, for the brothers’ arrest in Arlington, VA, for impersonating police officers and for the early morning SWAT-team raid of the Alis’ Columbia home on Aug. 22, 2007. It’s this alleged blame that created Wael’s motive to strangle his twin on a secluded pathway off Green Meadow Drive in Columbia, according to Dietrich.
He laid out the timeline of Aug. 22, 2007, the day Wasel is believed to have been killed:
In the morning, the twins' Columbia home was raided. Wasel was then fired from his job at Banana Republic in Columbia Mall in the afternoon. Wael was sent to pick him up. He arrived in the parking lot at 5:48 p.m., according to surveillance footage. The twins talk at an AT&T kiosk in the mall with a friend for an hour. They depart in opposite directions. Wael gets in his van and immediately departs from the mall without Wasel.
The defense and prosecution disagree on what happened next.
The defense maintains Wael never saw his brother again, but the prosecution claims Wael looped around the mall and picked up Wasel.
“He gets in the left lane and turns,” said Dietrich. “He was headed right where Wasel was walking. He found him. He picked him up and drove away.”
According to Dietrich, Wael’s whereabouts are unknown for 25 minutes, the time that passes before he makes a call to a friend. The defense claims he drove around Columbia. But Dietrich said Wael was driving to the Merion apartment building with his brother, then to nearby woods where they used to play and gather when they were kids.
“Words had become viscious and anger had built up,” explained Dietrich.
He said Wael pulled down Wasel’s jacket, restricting his arms and then attacked, strangling Wasel.
Dietrich silenced the courtroom for 40 seconds, saying that was the amount of time it would have taken Wael to force his brother into unconsciousness. He asked court participants to consider the thoughts that went through their heads in those 40 seconds. He asked if they would have had enough time to consider their own actions.
“The point of unconsciousness was opportunity to stop,” said Dietrich. “Instead, he kept going.”
Wael continued to choke his brother for 3 to 10 minutes, proving that Wael is guilty of first-degree murder, argued Dietrich.
But defense attorney Jason Shapiro raised a number of concerns with the prosecution’s case. He said two sets of DNA were found on Wasel’s wallet, which was discovered laying on the path about 10 feet from his body with only his ID inside. One of those sets was Wasel’s; the other was never identified.
He asked about suspicious men who were seen leaving the woods where the body was found around 2:30 in the morning some three days after Wasel was believed to have been killed. A witness found them so suspicious he took down their license plate, but the state never investigated them, argued Shapiro.
“There is no physical evidence, nothing,” Shapiro said. “Nothing linking my client to the woods, to the wallet or the body. Nothing.”
He explained how the prosecution repeatedly told the jury that Wasel died of strangulation, but the medical examiner, Ana Rubio, testified Wasel could have been killed in a number of ways.
She attributed his death to neck injuries that may have been caused by blunt force trauma, a fight, by multiple people or perhaps by a silk tie that was found in Wasel’s pocket, Shapiro said.
Shapiro criticized the police officers involved in the case as well, saying they lost the trust of Wael. Shapiro claimed officers didn’t care about reports of suspicious men or alternate motives such as robbery because they were focused on Wael as their chief suspect.
Shapiro noted that although officers investigated extensively at the crime scene, they found nothing to link Wael to the woods where Wasel’s body was found.
“My client had no dirt, no wounds, no blood, no marks on his face or body,” said Shapiro.
“It could have been just a robbery,” added Shapiro later. “Someone could have landed a lucky blow, pulled [Wasel’s] jacket down and grabbed the wallet.”
He reminded the jury that in order to convict Wael for murder, it must believe without a reasonable doubt that he killed his twin brother.
“Would you bet your house on my client’s guilt?” asked Shapiro.
After Shapiro finished, the other prosecutor, Doug Nelsen, addressed the jury for a rebuttal. He said the medical examiner found Wasel died of asphyxiation, which meant even if he was knocked unconscious by a blunt object, someone had to have cut off his airflow for a considerable period of time afterwards.
He dismissed the report of the suspicious men because Wasel’s stomach contents contained chicken and rice, which a receipt found in his pocket showed he had purchased in the afternoon on Aug. 22, 2007. Nelsen said food digests into an unrecognizable paste one to four hours after it is eaten, unless digestion stops, which occurs when someone dies.
Nelsen zeroed in on how Wael brought his friends near the location of where Wasel’s body was found the same day he went missing, near the Merion apartment building on Green Meadow Drive.
He showed the jury a map of Columbia, pointed to the Ali residence on the East side, the Mall in the center and then the Merion on the West. Why did Wael tell friends he had “a bad feeling” near the Merion four days before Wasel’s body was discovered, asked Nelsen.
“He got within 60 feet of the body an hour after Wasel’s death,” said Nelsen. “It wasn’t intuition, it was knowledge.”
As he closed his statements, Nelsen reiterated a point the defense made in its opening statements--that Wael has to see Wasel’s face every day when he looks in the murder.
“He doesn’t see Wasel’s face,” said Nelsen. “He sees the person who killed Wasel.”
The jury entered deliberations at 2 p.m.