Thirteen-year-old Jean Sanchez managed to take the green shoelaces from 13-year-old Ameer Al Shammari’s sneakers, tied his hands in front with one and began strangling him from behind with the other.
When that lace snapped, Sanchez grabbed a cord from Al Shammari’s hooded sweat shirt and finished strangling him in an overgrown field off Amherst Street in Black Rock a week ago Friday.
That testimony from Homicide Detective Michael A. Mordino, along with Sanchez’s confession, persuaded City Judge Debra L. Givens on Friday to send the case to a grand jury and continue Sanchez’s detention.
Defense attorney Paul G. Dell, in questioning the confession, said he was not certain that Sanchez could have committed the slaying by himself and, outside the courtroom, said it would not surprise him if detectives ended up making more arrests in the case.
“As recently as last night, detectives were knocking on doors and looking to take DNA samples from other teenagers,” Dell said, adding that he believes his client could have been intimidated into confessing.
During the cross-examination of Mordino, Dell asked, “Did you tell Mr. Sanchez he would go to jail for the rest of his life if he didn’t tell the truth?”
“No,” Mordino said.
Sanchez, who is 5 feet, 3 inches tall and weighs 115 pounds, sat quietly at the defense table where an interpreter translated the courtroom exchanges into Spanish. With a bushy head of curly black hair, Sanchez wore a purple, black and gray striped shirt, light gray jeans and black sneakers.
Al Shammari, police said, was 5 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed 120 pounds.
In the back row of the courtroom, his mother and father and one of his two older brothers, who all moved to the United States from Iraq about 18 months ago, listened as Assistant District Attorney Paul Parisi made a case that homicide detectives had collected enough proof to move the case to a grand jury review.
The mother, dressed in a black burka, sobbed as family and friends huddled close to her. They too were assisted by an interpreter, explaining the proceedings.
Dell argued that without physical evidence, the confession could not alone sustain a charge of second-degree murder. He urged Givens to drop the murder count and send the case to Erie County Family Court because of the boy’s age. Sanchez turned 13 on Jan. 1.
Dell later said that if an oral DNA sample taken from Sanchez last Saturday, when the boy initially denied killing Al Shammari, confirms aspects of the confession he gave police early Tuesday morning, his strategy will focus on discrediting a 36-year-old law that allows 13-year-olds to be charged with second-degree murder.
“When that antiquated law was passed, they didn’t even have brain scans that can show 13-year-olds’ frontal lobes are not fully developed,” Dell said outside the courtroom in making a case that a young teenager lacks the intellectual capacity to think like an adult and should not be charged as an adult.
Mordino testified that Sanchez confessed to the slaying in the second interview, which began shortly after midnight Monday in an office at SUNY Buffalo State’s police station.
Dell also repeatedly attempted to ask Mordino about whether Sanchez’s statement was voluntary, but was rebuffed by Givens.
Sanchez, according to the testimony, initially had denied any involvement in Al Shammari’s death when first questioned by police with his mother present last Saturday at Buffalo Police Headquarters.
An explanation of why the second interview was conducted at Buffalo State was not offered in court, but Dell later speculated that it was held there because it is only blocks away from the Black Rock apartment the Sanchez family had been living in on Germain Street. The family moved after the boy’s arrest.
Dell asked Mordino, “Your office is continuing this investigation?”
“That’s correct,” Mordino said.
But when the detective was asked if additional DNA samples were being taken from other individuals, the judge upheld Parisi’s objection to the question.
Following the hearing, Dell was asked how Sanchez was doing.
“He’s putting up a good front, but he is scared,” the court-appointed lawyer said. He added that the Al Shammari family’s pain should not be forgotten. “This is a horrible crime,” he said.
Asked whether others might have been involved in the slaying, Dell said, “While his version of what happened is possible, I wouldn’t be surprised if others were.”
Dell pointed out that Sanchez’s parents, who were not in the courtroom, have gone out of their way to cooperate with homicide investigators and on Monday evening walked from their apartment to police headquarters downtown with their 17-year-old daughter so she could be interviewed by police who had asked to speak with her.
“I think this family has been unfairly bashed,” Dell said about public comments that have appeared on social media sites. “This family was trying to cooperate with police.”
Sanchez was sent back to the Youth Services Detention Center on East Ferry Street. “That’s probably the safest place for him to be right now,” Dell said about Sanchez at the juvenile facility.
By law, the district attorney’s office must present the case to a grand jury within 30 days. If convicted of second-degree murder, Sanchez would be sentenced to at least five years and up to life in prison.
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