ROCHESTER – On the face of it, Alexander Weiss seemed an unlikely candidate to ever be charged with murder. He is an Eagle Scout, a church and YMCA volunteer and a youth basketball referee.
But after a minor fender bender last weekend escalated into a confrontation that turned deadly, the 25-year-old Rochester man who told police he fired the fatal shot in self-defense now faces a second-degree murder charge.
It’s early yet, but the criminal case against Weiss will likely hinge on the state’s legal definition of self-defense, which will ask jurors to consider whether his actions were reasonable given the threat he faced. State law also says a person has a duty to retreat, unless they’re being attacked in their home, before they can legally strike back.
Several criminal defense attorneys said it could be a difficult defense for Weiss, who has told police that he fired his gun because he felt his life was in danger.
Moments before he was fatally shot, the victim, 17-year-old Muhammed Rahim, said that he didn’t believe Weiss had a real gun, according to court documents. A driver who was passing by the scene at the time of the confrontation said she didn’t see Rahim raise a fist, advance or assault Weiss before he was shot. And Rahim’s passenger said that although he and Rahim threatened to beat up Weiss over the collision, neither of them actually threw punches.
Rahim’s death, meanwhile, has led his father, Abdulwahhab Kareem, to say Weiss acted in cold blood.
“He’s an animal,” an emotional Kareem said.
A popular volunteer
News of the shooting shocked Weiss’ family and his friends at Calvary Evangelical Free Church, said Connie Edwards, a staff member.
She said she’s known Weiss for six or seven years. His parents have long attended the church, and his mother worked there as a receptionist.
“Kids loved him,” Edwards said last week.
Weiss has been a popular volunteer with the church’s youth ministry, and some of the church’s pastors attended his arraignment in Olmsted County District Court last Wednesday. The church’s youth pastor had to prepare remarks later that day to greet the youth group that normally would have met with Weiss that night.
Edwards said she’s always found Weiss, who is single, to be a wonderful person. She said the church has reached out to Weiss’ parents to offer help.
“They’ve replied, basically, ‘Thank you. We are in shock and we’ll let you know,’ ” she said.
A fatal confrontation
Weiss was driving in his Rochester neighborhood the morning of Jan. 14 when he saw another car slide through an intersection. He stopped, but before he could check on the car’s occupants, the other car backed up and hit his own, according to the criminal complaint filed in court last week.
In the following confrontation, Weiss and Rahim, the two drivers, and a passenger in the other car, got out of their vehicles and stood within inches of each other.
According to the complaint:
Weiss, who has a permit to carry a gun, told the police that after feeling threatened by Rahim’s passenger and returning to his car to get his phone and firearm, he warned the passenger that he was armed. Moments later, he told police, Rahim started to yell at him and said that he and his passenger were going to beat up Weiss.
He said Rahim then approached and was a few inches from his face before shoving him in the chest. Weiss then pulled the gun out of his pocket and pointed it at the ground to show Rahim that he was armed. He told police that Rahim then spat at him and told him the gun didn’t look real. Weiss said Rahim then reached for the gun so he backed up and told Rahim to stop.
Weiss then shot him at point-blank range.
“If he really believes that this person is a threat to immediately do him great bodily harm or kill him, then he’s got a right to defend himself,” said Joe Friedberg, a Minneapolis criminal defense attorney. “However, he’s the only one with a weapon.”
A defendant in a self-defense case “pretty much has to testify” at trial, said Friedberg, but it’s risky.
“If [the jury] catches him lying about anything, they’ll convict him,” Friedberg said.
Every fact about the shooting will come into play at trial, said Twin Cities criminal defense attorney Avery Appelman. “Time of day, location, how did this happen? How did the person stand? Do you know that this person has a propensity for violence?”
Even Rahim’s proximity to Weiss’ car and their respective sizes will be factors.
Weiss, at 6-1 and 190 pounds, was larger than either the 5-10, 160-pound Rahim or Rahim’s passenger, Noah Dukart, who stands 5-6 and weights 135 pounds, according to public records.
Weiss, who is white, has lived in southeast Minnesota his entire life. Rahim spent his childhood in his native Iraq, fleeing the war and coming to the U.S. in 2012 with his parents and two siblings.
Their backgrounds and race could also influence a trial in a number of ways, said Friedberg.
“You never even want to think this way but our beliefs are colored by our biases in relation to ethnicity as well,” said Friedberg.
“Even if it’s not said, it’s there,” said Appelman. “It’s going to be talked about.”
Duty to retreat
The general rule in Minnesota is that unless you’re in your home when threatened, you have a duty to retreat if possible.
Weiss told authorities that in the moment just before he shot Rahim, he backed up, according to the criminal complaint.
“It could be argued that he retreated to the point where he met the burden,” said criminal defense attorney Ryan Pacyga.
The duty to flee doesn’t mean you need to run, just that you try to get away, even if only taking a few steps, Appelman said.
“You need to disengage this particular encounter. … And then if somebody would reapproach you and re-engage, then you are no longer the aggressor,” he said.
The problem for Weiss may be that by his own description of the encounter, he walked away at one point to get his handgun from his car’s glove box, but then returned to face Dukart and Rahim.
“He could have very easily just sat in his car and waited, right? And I think a prosecutor would point that out,” Appelman said.
“This kid [Rahim] had no belief that he was going to be shot,” he added. “This is a challenging case for everybody.”