By Kevin Rector, email@example.com
9:37 AM EDT, April 18, 2012
State prosecutors Monday told a judge they would no longer pursue murder charges against Wael Ali, 24, the former Columbia resident accused of killing his twin brother in 2007.
Ali, who'd been charged with first-degree murder, was released later Monday from the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup, where he has been held without bail since his arrest in Georgia seven months ago.
Family members and friends gathered in the Ellicott City courtroom at Monday's hearing burst into tears and began hugging each other as soon as the decision was announced.
Some also hugged the prosecutors in the case as they left the courtroom after the brief hearing.
"We're just relieved and happy," said Weam Ali, the twins' older sister. "It's been a long seven months waiting for this, and we are happy justice has prevailed."
The body of Wasel Ali, 19, was discovered on Aug. 27, 2007 in a wooded area of Clary's Forest in Columbia, where police said the twins had played as children. The 2006 Wilde Lake graduate had suffered a neck injury and died of asphyxiation after suffocating due to several minutes of pressure around his neck, investigators determined.
Family members did not believe Wael killed his brother, and prosecutors failed to convince jury members of Wael's guilt during his murder trial in Howard County Circuit Court last month.
The 12-member jury failed to reach a verdict, causing Judge Richard S. Bernhardt to declare a mistrial.
Jason Shapiro, Ali's defense attorney, said he was told the jurors voted 11 to 1 against convicting Ali of killing his twin, a "skewed" number that bolstered Shapiro's argument to prosecutors that Wael would be found not guilty if tried again.
"We were feeling very confident that a jury would not hold Mr. Ali responsible for the death of his brother," Shapiro said.
Shapiro and prosecutors negotiated on a possible plea agreement, but no deal was deemed acceptable by both sides, Shapiro and prosecutors said.
Shapiro said he had urged prosecutors not to put the Ali family — including Wael, who "fell apart in jail" after being charged with killing his "best friend and twin" — through another trial.
Assistant State's Attorney Jim Dietrich said he decided not to retry Ali after speaking with many of the jurors in the first trial, who said they had issues with the prosecution's case that Dietrich knew he was unable to resolve.
"We came to the decision that we couldn't present a better case than we did," Dietrich said.
Ali's release is likely to mark the end of prosecutors' work on his brother's murder investigation.
Dietrich said he does not foresee any new charges' being filed.
"The case went cold for a reason," he said of the challenges of forming a strong case in a years-old murder.
Shapiro said it's unlikely now that Wasel Ali's murderer will ever be brought to justice.
"There's some cases that will never be solved," he said.
David Zwanetz, another defense attorney, said that likelihood "may be the biggest tragedy in this entire case."
Dietrich said he is not aware of any plans to pursue other suspects.
Wael Ali had been interviewed by police multiple times in 2007, after Wasel's body was first found. But for four years, police made no arrests in the case.
Then, on Sept. 15 of last year, Howard County police announced they'd arrested Wael Ali for the murder.
No big break had come in the investigation, police said, but Dietrich said prosecutors thought they had a "strong circumstantial case" and enough evidence for jurors to draw "inferences" that removed any doubt that Wael had killed his brother.
When the announcement of the alleged fratricide was made, comments exploded on social media websites about the case.
During the trial, which lasted eight days, prosecutors alleged Wael and Wasel had gotten into a fight about unrelated legal trouble they were in, that Wael had killed Wasel during a struggle, and that Wael's words and actions following the killing proved his guilt.
They said Wael Ali's stories were inconsistent and incomplete, and the way he led others in searching for Wasel was suspicious.
They also said he had called other people appearing distraught, saying he couldn't find his brother, within an hour of their being seen leaving the Columbia mall.
That night, prosecutors said, Wael Ali directed friends to look in the woods where his brother's body would be found five days later.
During the trial, Shapiro highlighted what he said were unanswered questions that raised significant doubts as to Ali's guilt.
Shapiro noted there was no physical evidence linking Ali to the crime, that the DNA of an unidentified person was found at the scene, and that police had failed to rule out other possible suspects in the case.
Stephen Calamia, a Clary's Forest man who found Wasel's body, testified that he had seen suspicious-looking people "walking quite solemnly" out of the woods a few nights before.
Prosecutors said undigested food in Wasel's stomach indicated he had died the evening he disappeared, not days later, when Calamia had noticed the suspicious men.
Jurors in the trial deliberated the verdict for 18 hours over three days.
After they failed to reach a verdict, a mistrial was declared on March 29, and Ali was ordered held at the county detention center while prosectors determined whether they wanted to retry him.
After Monday's hearing, Dietrich said the outcome of the case was "somewhat disappointing," but there was nothing more prosecutors could do.
"If we were ultimately unsuccessful, that's probably the way it should have been," he said. "That's the way the justice system is set up."
Zafer Awad, a Muslim imam and an Ali family friend, said the case had been extremely difficult for the family.
"I saw the grief of his mom. So bad," said Awad, who had come to the hearing from Cobb County, Ga., where Wael Ali and his mother, Najwa Ali, had been members of his Friday prayer group before Wael was arrested.
After the hearing, Najwa Ali, the twins' mother, was "in happy tears," Awad said.
The family is "very together," Awad said, and they "live in harmony."
Awad called Wael's arrest last year "something that does not add up," and said the family's many friends in Georgia will be happy to hear the news of Wael's release.
"We missed him," Awad said.
Members of the family took a group photo outside the county court building after the hearing. They were smiling and resting their hands on each other's shoulders.
Wathig Ali, the twins' brother, said the whole family went to the detention center to wait for Wael to be released.
"I can speak for the whole family when I say we're all very happy and pleased," he said. "It's exactly the outcome we were waiting for."
Patuxent Publications reporter David Greisman contributed to this article.