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Mahdi Ali faces six counts of first-degree murder in the 2010 deaths at a Minneapolis market

(startribune) Abdirizak Bihi was at a local coffee shop late last week when conversation turned to Mahdi Hassan Ali, the teenager accused of gunning down three men during a botched robbery that shook the security of Minneapolis’ Somali community.

Most customers didn’t know that nearly two years after the January 2010 slayings at the Seward Market and Halal Meats store, Ali was about to stand trial on six counts of first-degree murder. In fact, Bihi said, they thought he’d long since been convicted and locked away.

“The community thinks that when something like this happens, he goes to jail and it’s done,” said Bihi, director of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center in Minneapolis. “A lot of people don’t know how the legal process proceeds in this country. I had to explain what had to take place.”

After 21 months of legal wrangling, including a debate that went to the Minnesota Supreme Court, jury selection is scheduled to begin Tuesday in the trial of Ali, 18, of Minneapolis. He is accused of fatally shooting store employee Abdifatah Warfa, 28; his cousin, Mohamed Warfa, 30, who had stopped to visit, and customer Anwar Mohammed, 31, on Jan. 6, 2010.

The killings shocked the city and the members of the East African community in particular. The night after the shooting, 200 people braved subzero temperatures for a vigil outside the market, and 400 attended a community meeting a few nights later to decry what police described as cold-blooded, brazen crimes.

More than 50 witnesses might take the stand in the trial, which is expected to last three weeks and include video surveillance tape as key evidence depicting the killings. If convicted, Ali faces life imprisonment.

Ali’s co-defendant, Ahmed Ali, 18, also of Minneapolis, has pleaded guilty and is expected to testify against him.

Prosecutors allege the two wore ski masks and entered the market at 25th and E. Franklin Avenues shortly after 7:30 p.m. Mahdi Ali allegedly pointed a gun at two men behind the front counter and shouted “This is a robbery!” while Ahmed Ali admitted to corralling customers in the back of the store. All three men were killed inside the store.

Questions of identity

Mahdi Ali’s attorney, Frederick Goetz, plans to offer evidence during the trial that a different man could have been the second robber in the Seward Market along with Ahmed Ali.

Court records include statements by a witness who said the defense’s alleged suspect approached him in school and admitted he participated in the crime.

According to police interviews, however, the witness said that Mahdi Ali had the gun and aborted the robbery when he was recognized, then fired the fatal shots when one of the men grabbed him.

Mahdi Ali allegedly shot the last victim in the back as he fled for the door, then stepped over his body as they left, the witness said he was told.

Goetz pointed out that any doubt regarding who did the shooting was enough to acquit his client.

“We believe the defense will come down to one word: misidentification,” Goetz said.

Hennepin District Judge Peter Cahill is expected to rule Tuesday on whether Goetz can use the defense. In the meantime, Goetz said, his client is ready for trial.

“He’s a boy who faces the most serious charges that one can face with the possible result that he will die in prison,” Goetz said.

“It’s a very sobering and frightening position. Nonetheless, he’s looking forward to his day in court.”

Moving ahead

The trial was delayed for nearly a year after Goetz sought to quash the murder indictment in July 2010, saying that because his client was only 15 at the time of the killings, he shouldn’t automatically stand trial as an adult.

Goetz contended his client’s date of birth was not Jan. 1, 1993, the date on his Minnesota driver’s license. That date would have made him 17 at the time of the shootings. Goetz blamed the confusion on a lack of recordkeeping in the Kenyan refugee camp where Ali was born.

After a hearing that included molar analysis by a dentist who testified for the prosecution, Cahill ruled that Ali was likely older than 16. An appeal made its way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which in June upheld Cahill’s ruling.

In the meantime, the Somali community has worked to put the slayings behind them. Most, if not all, believe Ali will be convicted, Bihi said. The Seward Market remains open, and a community mural on the building was unveiled last month.

It’s become a sacred place, Bihi said, not only because of those who died there, but because it’s a symbol of success frequented by mothers, elders and children.

The Somali community has made great strides in two years of working with police to solve crimes, Bihi said. He anticipates that the Ali trial will reinforce that.

“This kind of education will give a confidence, a belief in the system,” he said.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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