Wael Ali's words and actions after his twin brother went missing 4 1/2 years ago were not just those of the last person to see Wasel Ali alive, prosecutors said in Howard County Circuit Court Tuesday. They were those of the first person to see Wasel Ali dead.
Wael killed Wasel on Aug. 22, 2007, less than a half-hour after the 19-year-olds had left the Columbia mall, prosecutors said at the start of Wael Ali's murder trial. That, they said, is why Wael called people within the hour, distraught, his voice cracking, telling friends he was looking for his brother.
It is also why, they said, he directed friends that evening to search in the wooded area in Hickory Ridge where Wasel's body would ultimately be found five days later, saying he "had a bad feeling."
"The defendant's words are going to be his own undoing," prosecutor Doug Nelsen said Tuesday. "It's going to be the defendant who chips away at his own innocence."
Wael Ali, now 24, was arrested more than four years after the slaying, in September 2011. His trial on one count of first-degree murder, which is expected to last up to two weeks, got under way Tuesday with opening statements and testimony from several witnesses.
Defense attorney David Zwanetz countered the prosecutor's arguments by portraying how close the brothers were. He spoke of how Wael had gone to the scene and then fainted after Wasel's body had been found.
"Try to imagine the pain you would feel," Zwanetz said. "This was his twin brother and his best friend. An unexplained, unsolved, untimely mystery. He can't even look in the mirror to this day without being reminded of Wasel."
He said the police's case hinged on a September 2007 interview only eight days after Wasel was found, when Wael was "lethargic and barely coherent," yet detectives confronted him for three hours. Years later, a cold-case investigator looked at that interview and pushed for charges against Wael, the defense attorney said.
"This is a rush to justice," Zwanetz said. "Or, actually, to injustice."
Nelsen told jurors that the twins were in legal trouble, that police had broken down their door early in the morning on Aug. 22, handcuffing the boys and their father and searching their home for evidence related to a criminal case out of Northern Virginia. Five days before, he said, they had been cited for allegedly impersonating police officers while pretending to be security guards at a club in Clarendon.
Wael blamed Wasel for that incident, and the brothers fought later that night, the prosecutor said.
Wasel went to work at a mall clothing store after the raid. Wael went to pick up his brother in the evening, Nelsen said, but after the boys spent time speaking with friends at the mall, the twins left in opposite directions.
Yet in an interview with investigators, Wael Ali first said he had waited for his brother for 20 minutes, then said he'd waited for 10, then said he'd left immediately without Wasel, Nelsen said. Surveillance footage showed Wael pulling out of his parking spot without waiting. Police said Wael arrived at a friend's house later than he'd initially said.
Twenty-five minutes after leaving, Wael Ali made a phone call that bounced off a cell phone tower in Long Reach, detectives determined. That left enough time for him to pick up his brother at another side of the mall, drive to the 12200 block of Green Meadow Drive in Clary's Forest, walk down a paved path and into a wooded area, be in the woods for five to six minutes, then drive to a spot where a phone call would connect through that cell tower, Nelsen said.
Cartilage in Wasel's neck had been fractured, Nelsen said. His dress jacket had been pulled behind him, his arms trapped. The brothers used to show off combat chokeholds they had learned in military training, the prosecutor said. The undigested food in his stomach matched a receipt showing a meal he'd eaten Aug. 22 at the mall, which suggested that he had died not too long thereafter.
In court, Wael Ali closed his eyes as Nelsen described the time it would take to cut off blood, then the three to four minutes of constant pressure required to kill someone.
"You're going to picture him squeezing and squeezing and squeezing and squeezing," Nelsen said.
Nelsen told the jury that this case would not be decided with DNA evidence, not when twin brothers are involved, nor was there a murder weapon. Nevertheless, he said, they would come to the conclusion that Wael Ali is guilty.
"What's going to undo the defendant," Nelsen said, "are his lies, his stories, his motive, his opportunity, and ultimately, collectively, your common sense."
Ali's defense attorneys on Tuesday began to question elements of the case against their client. Stephen Calamia, the man who contacted police after finding Wasel Ali's body, noted under cross examination that he had seen suspicious people coming from the woods days before who "were walking quite solemnly out of the woods."