More than 200 East African immigrants tried to squeeze into back-to-back Hennepin County court sessions Friday for two teenage Somali boys facing murder charges in the shooting deaths of three men last week at a Seward neighborhood store.
More than half those who came to support the families of the victims and the defendants had to wait outside as Mahdi Hassan Ali, 17, and his friend, Ahmed Shire Ali, 17, appeared before a judge for the first time since the Jan. 6 shootings at the Seward Market and Halal Meats in south Minneapolis. (The teenagers are friends and not related.)
During separate hearings, District Judge Gary Larson set bail at $3 million for each.
Mahdi Ali was the alleged gunman in what authorities have described as a robbery turned fatal. Ahmed Ali allegedly confined two people to the back of the store while his friend robbed and shot the men up front, according to a criminal complaint.
The hearings, which lasted no more than 10 minutes each, began a process that could result in life in prison without release for the teenagers if convicted of first-degree murder.
According to the complaint, the two entered the market at E. Franklin and 25th avenues shortly after 7:30 p.m. wearing ski masks.
Mahdi Ali allegedly pointed a gun at two men behind the front counter and shouted "This is a robbery." Within minutes, three men were dead. Slain were store employee Abdifatah Warfa, 28, his cousin, Mohamed Warfa, 30, who had stopped to visit, and Anwar Mohammed, 31, a customer. The Warfas were Somali. Mohammed was Oromo.
In court, Ahmed Ali, dressed in an orange jail suit, appeared first. With his lawyer, Paul Edlund, nearby, the gangly youth looked nervously around the courtroom. After stating his name and address, he sat behind a wall and glass window. Edlund declined to argue against the prosecution's request for $3 million bail.
Ahmed Ali's next court appearance was set for 1:30 p.m. Feb. 17 before Judge Mark Wernick.
"I don't think that at 17 anyone can appreciate how serious this situation is, but he's 17; he's doing the best he can," Edlund said afterward. "It's just a sad situation."
Minutes later, Mahdi Ali, also wearing an orange jail clothing, appeared. Leaning on a counter and peering through a hole in the glass, he looked alert as his eyes darted around the room. Mostly he was impassive, but at times he appeared to smirk or be on the verge of a smile.
Mahdi Ali's court-appointed lawyer, Amanda Johnson, argued against the high bail, saying her client's Jan. 1, 1993, birth date was simply a "guess" and that he may be younger. If so, the law would require a more rigorous process before he could be tried as an adult.
She noted that he is "very young" and has a "minimal criminal history, none of which is violent." She also said he is a student in good standing at South High School. She said he has been in Minnesota seven years, lives in an apartment with his grandmother and is on public assistance.
"Mr. Ali understands the seriousness of this situation and is anxious to fight the charges in court," Johnson said.
Assistant County Attorney Judith Cole countered that Mahdi Ali "showed no concern for human life," and that he went back into the store and shot Anwar Mohammed a second time to make sure he didn't survive.
Mahdi Ali's next court appearance was set for Feb. 18 at 1:30 p.m. in front of Wernick.
Larson agreed with the $3 million bail request. The judge also ordered that the two be jailed apart and not be allowed to communicate.
Although the courtroom and lobby outside were packed with security officers and community members, the hearings went smoothly.
As she left the courtroom, Mahdi Ali's grandmother, who gave only her first name -- Zienab -- apologized for her grandson's alleged actions.
"I did not know [he] would commit this crime, and I'm sorry for the people who have died at his hands," she said through an interpreter. "I feel both sorrow for my boys, and the people who have died."
Meanwhile, a relative of two of the shooting victims said his family was angered by Mahdi Ali's expression in court.