Whether Wael Ali is guilty of murdering his twin brother, Wasel, could come down to one question.
"If you have him in the woods on Aug. 22, 2007," said prosecutor Doug Nelsen, "then he's the killer."
But one of Ali's defense attorneys said there are far more questions than that — reasons the 24-year-old former Columbia resident should be found not guilty.
Those are the arguments the jury of nine men and three women will consider in their deliberations, which began Tuesday afternoon following closing arguments from prosecutors and defense attorney Jason Shapiro.
The trial began March 20 at Howard County Circuit Court in Ellicott City, more than four and a half years after Wasel, then 19, was found dead in a wooded area of Clary's Forest in Columbia on Aug. 27, 2007, five days after he disappeared.
Ali is charged with one-count of first-degree murder. The jury has the option of finding him guilty on lesser charges, such as second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter, or finding him not guilty on all counts.
Prosecutors do not have a murder weapon, forensic evidence linking Wael to Wasel's death, or any witnesses to the crime. But they assert that Wael strangled his brother, point to evidence that suggests he lied to friends and police about it, and say that his words and actions are key.
What Wael said and did after Wasel disappeared, including leading a search for his brother within hours of the last time he had seen him, were meant to cover up his guilt, prosecutors said, but served instead to be his undoing and implicate him.
"On the one hand he couldn't admit to what he'd done," said prosecutor James Dietrich. "But on the other hand, he wanted his brother's body to be found."
'Wrath of brothers'
Dietrich led his closing argument with a proverb: "The wrath of brothers is fierce and devilish."
He then laid out his case for how Wasel bore the brunt of Wael's wrath over legal trouble that not only had affected the two of them, but had led to both the brothers and their father being handcuffed while police executed a search warrant on their Long Reach house on the morning of Aug. 22.
That search stemmed from a case out of Northern Virginia, in which Wael and Wasel were accused of impersonating police officers while pretending to be security guards at a club in Clarendon. After the police raid, Wasel was unexpectedly called into work at the Columbia mall — he would be interviewed, then fired, for allegedly stealing from his job at the Banana Republic.
Wael arrived at the mall to pick Wasel up nearly three hours later, at 5:48 p.m., though both remained at the mall speaking with friends before leaving in opposite directions at about 6:47 p.m.
Dietrich noted what he said appeared to be an unfriendly parting, Wael coming to the mall to get Wasel but Wasel not going with him. He showed surveillance camera footage of Wael walking to a gold minivan and driving off immediately, while Wasel could be seen exiting the mall elsewhere. That video showed Wael driving around the mall and turning in the direction from which Wasel was coming, he said.
"He couldn't have missed him," Dietrich said.
There was no evidence of where Wael was for the next 25 minutes, when he made a 7:12 p.m. phone call that cell phone records show came from east Columbia near Stonecutter Road in Long Reach.
Prosecutors had a theory, however.
Dietrich said Wael drove to Clary's Forest, to the Club Merion Apartments in the 12200 block of Green Meadow Drive, an area with a field, basketball court and playground where the boys had grown up and played.
"They were going to hash out their differences," he said. "It doesn't seem like it was much of a fight."
Wasel was found with his hands trapped in his jacket, which was halfway off and behind his back. He died from asphyxiation, suffering a neck injury and suffocating after what prosecutors said was several minutes of pressure.
Investigators believe Wael had enough time to then drive to Long Reach for that 7:12 p.m. phone call, the first of several calls to Wasel's girlfriend and other friends purportedly trying to locate his brother. Many described Wael as frantic.
'A bad feeling'
Twice that night, he led friends in a search of the Club Merion area, even having a friend shine headlights on the wooded area where Wasel's body would be found, saying he had "a bad feeling" about that area. Though the group also searched elsewhere, prosecutors said they only exited their vehicle at the Merion area and the mall.
This search, Dietrich said, was intended to set up an explanation for Wasel's disappearance and death. Detectives, however, found Wael's stories to be inconsistent and incomplete, the way and reasons he searched for his brother suspicious.
Shapiro countered with what he said were numerous unanswered questions he said would raise reasonable doubts as to Wael's guilt.
"We know there's no physical evidence — nothing — linking my client to the woods," he said.
Wasel's wallet, found at the scene, showed two people's DNA on it — one being either Wael or Wasel, as they are twins, and one belonging to an unidentified person.
Shapiro mentioned the testimony of the Clary's Forest man who found Wasel's body. A couple of nights before then, Stephen Calamia saw suspicious people coming from the woods who "were walking quite solemnly."
Wael's interview with detectives on Sept. 4, 2007, eight days after his brother's body was found, brought resistance because police had raided his home, failed to find his brother and now were confrontational and accusatory, Shapiro said. When Wael offered names of people who might have been involved in Wasel's disappearance, stories prosecutors said were contradictory to other statements from Wael, it was because he was trying to help investigators with leads, Shapiro said.
And police failed to rule out those leads, the defense attorney said, including a sport utility vehicle that had been said to have followed the brothers weeks before; military recruiters the brothers had implicated in a scheme to burglarize other recruiters, a scheme in which the brothers were also involved; a friend whose gun the brothers had taken and was seized following the Virginia club incident; and a teenager with whom Wasel had a disagreement.
Despite this, Shapiro said, "The detectives turn off the spotlight on everyone else and turn up the spotlight on him."
As for the Merion searches, Shapiro compared them to a parent's intuition for searching certain places when their children are missing.
'You answer the questions'
Nelsen sought to rebut Shapiro's closing argument. The undigested food in Wasel's stomach showed he had died the evening he disappeared, not the night the suspicious men were seen coming from the woods. He said police spoke to other possible suspects, but it was Wael who was not giving straight answers.
"There are certain things you can be noncooperative about ... but when it comes to solving your brother's murder, you answer the questions."
Nelsen said Wael had knowledge, not intuition, that kept bringing the search back to the Merion Apartments, that led to fliers being put up in the building.
That knowledge put Wael in the woods when Wasel died, he said. And the time it would take to kill Wasel — 45 seconds to render him unconscious, then another three to 10 minutes for Wasel to suffocate — makes Wael Ali guilty of first-degree murder, he said.
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