Queens Man Charged with Second-Degree Murder in Killing of Afghani Immigrant

A Queens man was found guilty of second-degree murder Thursday in the 2008 killing of an Afghani immigrant during a botched cell phone store holdup.

After three days of deliberation, the jury in State Supreme Court of Brooklyn convicted Donald Michel, 24, for killing car service driver Zalmai Anwari, 25.

In a second-degree murder charge, the defendant didn’t have to personally cause or intend the death of the victim.

On Dec. 29, Michel and his alleged accomplice Widley Viau entered a cell phone store in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, planning to rob the owner at gunpoint. But Anwari, who was working next door, heard the commotion and tried to keep the bandits from escaping by blocking the exit of the store. Then, two shots were fired at his head.

Cell phone store where Zalmai Anwari was shot/ABC

Sason Shokrany had been working at the cell phone store that day. He chased after the perpetrators, but they got away. According to Shokrany’s testimony, he witnessed Michel pull the trigger.

“He helped an innocent man,” said Arianra Ramein, 22, about her relative, Anwari. “How many people you know would do that?”

Michel’s attorney, Adrian Ellis, said the prosecution had taken liberty with the facts. He didn’t feel the eyewitness testimony and evidence presented by the prosecution were adequate to convict his client of first-degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt.

But Assistant District Attorney Robert Walsh disagreed.

“It’s so far beyond a case of reasonable doubt that you’re in the land of overwhelming evidence,” said Walsh in his summation argument Tuesday.

Shokrany, who claimed Michel held him at gunpoint when demanding money from the cash register, accurately identified Michel in a police line-up a few days later. However, Ellis argued the line-up was  “overly suggestive.”

Ellis said Shokrany is a pathological liar, but Walsh argued he had no motive to lie.

“Would you pretend to be a witness to a murder you didn’t even see?” he asked the jury. “He didn’t know the defendant. He’s not celebrating the fact that a citizen is being prosecuted.”

Walsh showed the jury a video of Michel’s statement to detectives at the time of his arrest, a surveillance video from close to the scene of the murder, DNA evidence, fingerprints, maps and cell phone records that corroborated his allegations against Michel. But Ellis accused Walsh of having a hole in his argument: Police were never able to recover the gun used by the murderer.

“To me, that’s a large void in the investigation,” said Ellis. “If competent, complete police work were done, we’d have a better idea of what really happened.”

Though Michel didn’t actually leave the cell phone store with any merchandise or money, he admitted to detectives in a recorded video statement that he had planned to. He said in the same statement that it was his friend Viau that had shot Anwari.

“He admits to what he can’t deny but denies what he can’t admit,” said Walsh, who suspected Michel only admitted to the robbery because he knew he could never get away with it. “The defendant chose to cut his losses. He put as much blame as he could on Widley Viau.”

In the meantime, Viau has identified Michel as the murderer. His attorney Danielle Eaddy is arguing on Viau’s behalf that psychiatric problems might have caused him to provide false statements to police and misunderstand his Miranda rights.

Viau’s trial for second-degree murder is scheduled for Oct. 27.

(Written Oct. 12, 2011 for Reporting and Writing class)


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