A felony hearing for the step-father accused of beating to death his 10-year-old stepson was conducted behind closed doors Monday after a City Court judge agreed with the defense attorney to bar the public.
The move upset friends and relatives of the child, Abdifatah Mohamud, who had come to Judge Diane Y. Wray's courtroom in downtown Buffalo to watch as lawyers argued whether the case should be reviewed by an Erie County grand jury.
"This is a big crime, so it does not make sense that it would be closed," Iman Gatur, a family friend, said outside the closed courtroom.
Amen Waris, the 21-year-old brother of Abdifatah, and several other relatives, left the courthouse shaking their heads in disbelief that they were barred from attending the hearing.
One of them, acting as a spokesman, said they were outraged.
After about 30 minutes, Wray ruled that the case against Ali Mohamed Mohamud, 40, should be held for a grand jury review, according to Assistant District Attorney Thomas M. Finnerty, prosecutor in the case.
Mohamud, whom Buffalo homicide detectives charged with second-degree murder, allegedly restrained and gagged his stepson, then, with a baker's rolling pin, struck him 70 times in the basement of the family's Guilford Street home last Tuesday.
The beating was carried out, Mohamud has told authorities, because the child had tried to flee the home and refused to do his homework.
Wray agreed to bar the public and members of the media from her courtroom after Mohamud's defense attorney, Kevin W. Spitler, persuaded the judge to approve his petition making the proceedings private.
After the hearing, Spitler emerged from the court, and when asked why he petitioned for a closed session, he said: "I have the right under state law. It's not my job to make everybody happy."
Law enforcement sources said Spitler objected to city homicide Detective Sgt. James P. Lonergan reading Mohamud's confession aloud in the courtroom. Spitler, the sources said, objected to grisly details being made public.
District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said barring the public from that type of proceeding is "extraordinarily unusual."
"I have personally prosecuted hundreds of serious felony cases over the course of 24 years and have never seen a preliminary hearing closed to the public," Sedita said.
But state criminal procedure law governing local courts, he said, does empower a judge to prohibit members of the public.
However, he added that case law interpreting the statute is very specific in the reasons allowing a courtroom to be closed to members of the public.
" it says the following: 'Defendant must demonstrate to the court a strong likelihood that evidence relevant and admissible would prejudice the defendant's trial if it were disclosed to potential jurors,' " Sedita said. When asked if that could have occurred during Monday's hearing, the prosecutor said: "Not that I am aware of.
Paul J. Cambria, a First Amendment attorney, said judges do have wide discretion under the law to bar the public.
"Usually it depends upon either a hearing with a statement attributed to the defendant that might be ruled out of evidence, a sensitive identification or information regarding a minor," Cambria said.