Jamiila Ahmed's life was transformed on the cold evening nearly two years ago when she stopped into Seward Market in south Minneapolis to pick up Somali coffee and witnessed one of the city's most brutal triple slayings in recent memory.
As the mother of six walked out of the Hennepin County Government Center on Friday, moments after a jury deemed Mahdi Ali responsible for killing three men at the market, she was succinct about how things were again about to change.
"I'm glad he's gone forever," she said of Ali. "Now I can move on."
Whether it was family members of the three men he gunned down, or Ali's own devastated mother and aunt, all knew what is all but certain: The 18-year-old is not likely to see freedom again. After a two-week trial and seven hours of deliberation, a jury found Ali guilty of four counts of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder for the Jan. 6, 2010, killings of Seward Market and Halal Meats employee Osman Elmi, 28; his cousin Mohamed Warfa, 30, and customer Anwar Mohammed, 31.
Ali showed little reaction as the verdicts were read, as did spectators in District Judge Peter Cahill's courtroom, most of whom were members of the Twin Cities Somali community and knew Ali or the victims.
A first-degree murder conviction carries an automatic sentence of life without parole. Ali will be sentenced Oct. 25.
His attorney, Frederick Goetz, declined to discuss the verdict pending sentencing, but said he plans to file motions that challenge the constitutionality of sentencing a juvenile to life without parole. Ali's birth date indicates he was 17 at the time of the killings.
Goetz has argued unsuccessfully, citing the lack of record-keeping in the Kenyan refugee camp where Ali was born, that he was only 15 at the time of the killings and should not have been automatically charged as an adult. That argument went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ruled that Ali was at least 16 at the time of the killings.
Ali's accomplice, Ahmed Ali, pleaded guilty shortly after the killings to three counts of attempted aggravated robbery and testified against Mahdi Ali. He will be sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorneys Robert Streitz and Charles Weber said they're satisfied with the verdict, and lauded the strength of the men's families during months of pre-trial hearings.
"It's obviously not a happy day when you get a verdict like this and a young man's not gonna be out for the rest of his life and that doesn't bring back three people who lost their lives needlessly," Weber said. "But we are happy that the jury took their time and considered everything carefully, and we are pleased with the result."
Abdi Mohamed Warfa, a cousin of victims Mohamed Warfa and Osman Elmi, said the family initially was displeased with the prosecutors' decision to cut a deal with Ahmed Ali, now 19, who they hold equally responsible for the deaths. They understood, they said, once it sealed a guilty verdict for Mahdi Ali.
"When anyone can walk into a grocery store and within a span of 60 seconds take away three lives, they have no respect for the sanctity of humanity," Warfa said. "For that reason, we think the verdict was the right verdict."
It won't bring back any of the three men, but it's about justice for their families, said Anwar Mohammed's brother Fethi Mohammed. "We got what we want, and he got what he deserved," he said. "But we feel sorry for his family, because they've been through what we've been through."
Ali's mother, Sainab Osman, and aunt, Ayan Abukar, quietly left the courtroom after the verdict was read. Abukar called the verdict unfair, saying her nephew should not have stood trial as an adult. No one knows what happened, she said, and family members came to the market that freezing night, mourning with the rest of the community, with no idea at the time that Mahdi would be deemed responsible.
"Those people who died were good boys, people who had good futures for their lives," Osman said while Abukar interpreted. "We're feeling bad for all the Somali people who died, but that young boy is a Somali boy who is going to prison for the rest of his life."
'Hell is waiting for him'
Key pieces of evidence included Ahmed Ali's testimony that Mahdi Ali urged him to participate in a "mission" to rob Seward Market because the store's money transfer business guaranteed thousands of dollars in cash on site. Surveillance video shown to the jury depicted two masked suspects bursting into the market, with Ahmed Ali corralling a customer and employee in the back while the armed suspect forced Elmi and Warfa to the ground. The gunman shot Mohammed as he came through the door and fled, then shot Warfa as he followed him to the door. He then ran back into the store, chased Elmi to the back and shot him. He paused over Mohamed and shot him once more in the head.
The suspect's jeans depicted in the video matched a pair found in Mahdi Ali's apartment with Warfa's DNA on them, prosecutors said. Goetz contended that Mahdi Ali was the victim of misidentification and of a setup by Ahmed Ali, who lied to get himself a lighter sentence.
The jury convicted Ali of three counts of first-degree murder during an aggravated robbery for each man's death, and one count of first-degree premeditated murder for Elmi's death. He was also convicted of two counts of second-degree murder for Mohammed and Warfa's deaths. With the second-degree murder convictions, the jury didn't believe their killings were premeditated, which Streitz said he could accept because of the "fine line" between premeditation and intent. He said he will address Goetz's motion protesting the sentence when it is filed.
Anwar Mohammed's widow, Chaltu Nur, was still a newlywed and in Ethiopia when her husband called one January morning and excitedly told her he'd found them a place to rent so he could bring her to the United States. The next day she received a call with the news that he was dead.
"I lost part of my life. My life is nothing without my husband," Nur said Friday, wiping her eyes with her scarf as Ahmed translated. "He's gone forever, but I'm glad it's over."
Before he left the courthouse with friends and family, Abdi Mohamed Warfa said it'll never be over for Mahdi Ali, whose justice will extend beyond this lifetime.
"Hell is waiting for him," he said.
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921