Moments after Ahmed Shire Ali was sentenced Wednesday to spend the next decade in prison for his role as an accomplice in a robbery-turned-triple-murder, a stranger approached his family as they huddled quietly outside the courtroom.

It was Jamiila Ahmed, the customer Ahmed Ali forced to the back of Seward Market and Halal Meats in Minneapolis the night of Jan. 6, 2010, when his co-defendant, Mahdi Ali, 18, botched their plan to steal the store's cash and instead shot three men dead. She had something to say to Ahmed Ali's mother.

"Ahmed wasn't a killer, and he didn't want to kill nobody," Jamiila Ahmed said. "He actually saved our lives."

She told her story after the final court proceeding in a case that shook the Twin Cities Somali community.

Remorse underscored the contrast between Ahmed Ali's sentencing for three counts of attempted aggravated robbery and that of Mahdi Ali, who was ordered last week to serve three life sentences for the deaths of Mohamed Warfa, 31, Osman Elmi, 28, and Anwar Mohammed, 31. The two defendants are not related.

Ahmed Ali, 19, who accepted a plea deal of 18 years in prison in exchange for serving as a key witness in his former friend's murder trial, turned to face the friends and family of the slain men.

"I would like to say I'm sorry ... I didn't go in with an intention to hurt anybody," he said. "I hope when I get out I can do something productive and not make the same mistake twice."

Ahmed Ali, who also had been charged with murder, cut the deal with Hennepin County prosecutors four months after the slayings. He received six years for each victim, double the time recommended in state guidelines. With good behavior, he could be out in 10 years. His attorney, Paul Edlund, told Judge Margaret Daly that his client is not only remorseful, but plans to use the time in prison "to prove he is somebody worth saving as a young person and not lock up forever."

In a statement read by a victim advocate, Anwar Mohammed's niece, Fathia Salah, said she hoped that Ahmed Ali would finally deliver the apology that Mahdi Ali did not.

"I hope he shows his humanness," she wrote. "I would hope to know that he feels part of our pain."

'Somehow ... a good thing'

During Mahdi Ali's trial in September, Ahmed Ali testified that he was a reluctant player in the robbery, but agreed to it because Mahdi Ali promised to give him a car once they had the money to retrieve it from the Minneapolis impound lot. Mahdi Ali told him that robbing Seward Market and Halal Meats would net a big payoff because the business had a safe full of cash from money transfers.

Ahmed Ali's job would be to corral customers in the back of the store while Mahdi Ali held up those in the front. Almost immediately after they burst into the store, Mahdi Ali shot the three men while he was in the back with a customer and an employee. Ahmed Ali testified he had to step over a body in the shop's doorway as he scrambled to escape. He testified that Mahdi Ali said he shot the men because they recognized him. Ahmed Ali turned himself in a day later.

Ahmed Ali's sister, 21-year-old Hani Ali, smiled sadly at her brother as he entered the courtroom, and wiped her eyes as he was led out by deputies. He's already serving his sentence at St. Cloud, where the family visits every Saturday. She said she isn't proud of what her brother, the third of six children, had done, but said he is paying for his actions.

"Somehow," she said, "I think this is a good thing for him, too."

After the hearing, Jamiila Ahmed hugged Ahmed Ali's mother, Hawa Yusuf. The mother of six told Yusuf that as she begged for her life, Ahmed Ali told her that he wasn't going to hurt her. When the shots were fired, Ahmed Ali screamed "No killing!" and ran away. The fact that she was in the back of the store allowed her and employee Youb Ala to escape to a cooler.

"He could have pulled us into Mahdi Ali's hands and we would have been dead," she said.

"Me and my kids and husband, we're glad Ahmed Shire [Ali] was there."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921