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Hassan allowed to represent himself at trial
Judge Grants His Request
Jurors focus on photos from scene of beheading

Muzzammil "Mo" Hassan finally got his wish Monday as he began representing himself at his murder trial, creating a level of weirdness and a flurry of objections by the prosecution to his lengthy and often repetitive cross-examination of witnesses.

But by the end of the trial's fourth day of testimony in Erie County Court, what riveted jurors was not Hassan's proficiency -- or lack thereof -- at self-representation, but rather the brutal post-murder pictures, the bags of police evidence and a series of dark images taken from the surveillance cameras at Bridges TV, the network founded by Hassan and his wife, the day she was beheaded in the Orchard Park studio.

Because of time constraints, prosecutor Colleen Curtin Gable put off showing the surveillance video of the attack. Instead, she focused on reconstructing most of the last five minutes of Aasiya Zubair Hassan's life.

Orchard Park Detective John Payne, who gathered the bulk of the crime scene evidence and walked the jury through the time-stamped surveillance photos, testified:

*About 30 minutes before Aasiya showed up at the studio, Hassan already was there and had a black bag with him. He headed into the office that overlooked the parking lot, turned out the lights and stood by the window in the dark. He waited. Periodically, he checked his cell phone.

*At 5:52 p.m., as shown on the surveillance tape, Aasiya pulled her van into the parking lot. She got out, grabbed her keys and opened the door to the studio, then walked back to the van and got a large Toys "R" Us bag.

Inside the bag, later found beside her body, were her husband's things. There were clean and neatly folded clothes: nine pairs of socks and underwear, 14 white undershirts, a bathrobe, several polo shirts. There was shaving cream, Dial soap, a copy of the Quran, and a C-Pap machine used by sleep-apnea sufferers.

She carried nothing out of the ordinary in her pockets -- a cell phone, some cash and a Tops receipt.

It was 5:55 p.m. when she took the bag into the studio.

*At 5:57, the lights were on in the front office and so was Hassan, while in the dark hallway, Aasiya's severed head lay on the floor.

Curtin Gable showed jurors an image of Aasiya's body with a piece of paper covering the decapitation point. Aasiya was lying on her back. Her arms were out on both sides, and her hands were empty.

In response to the defense's opening statement that Hassan feared his wife was going to pull a knife on him, the prosecutor asked Payne if there was "any knife, any weapon of any sort" on or near the victim.

"No," Payne said.

His testimony capped off a day of drama that started with Judge Thomas Franczyk reluctantly granting Hassan's request to represent himself at trial after warning that Hassan was proceeding at great peril to his case.

Hassan's defense lawyer, Jeremy Schwartz, took on the role of legal adviser, providing assistance in helping Hassan rephrase questions when the prosecution would object.

Schwartz told the judge as the trial resumed Monday that it was not possible to continue as Hassan's defense lawyer after he had spoken with Hassan at length Friday. "Our opinions about the case are irreconcilable," Schwartz said. "The impasse goes to the heart of the defense."

When Franczyk asked him if Hassan was seeking to do things as part of his defense that are to his detriment, Schwartz hesitated.

"I would not be able to ethically do those things and represent his best interests," he said.

Franczyk rebuked Hassan for having unrealistic expectations of his counsel.

"It is my sense Mr. Hassan has very clear and specific ideas about what he expects of his lawyer," he said, repeating his belief that Hassan is looking for a "mouthpiece" or "marionette."

"This is not Burger King where you get to have it your way every time," he said.

Franczyk last week rejected Hassan's plea to represent himself, but he reversed himself Monday, saying: "He has the right to steer his own ship, even if, unwittingly, he's steering into an iceberg."

Prosecutors Curtin Gable and Paul Bonanno raised no objections to the request.

But during Hassan's first attempt at cross-examining a witness, Curtin Gable raised numerous objections to his questions. Most of the objections were sustained as Franczyk attempted to educate Hassan on why his questions were improper.

Hassan spent 45 minutes cross-examining the first witness, Hunaid Baliwala, 28, the general manager of Bridges TV, who has been working at Bridges since 2005 and was an assistant at the station when Aasiya was alive.

Though Hassan's questions and comments drew groans from some law students observing the trial, his technique improved slightly throughout the cross-examination, and he remained calm, if insistent and argumentative at times.

Baliwala testified about being present when Hassan was served his divorce papers Feb. 6, 2009, and about the ensuing concern and anxiety of Baliwala and his wife about trying to keep Aasiya safe from harm.

Baliwala, who was also a family friend, took in the Hassans' four children for more than a month beginning the night their mother was killed.

He recounted how he and another employee bleached the floor to get rid of Aasiya's blood after the studios were reopened and how none of the employees would work in the isolated front offices any longer because of the fear and grief that gripped everyone.

Under cross-examination, Baliwala recounted times when he and Hassan had pleasant dealings. He also acknowledged that he didn't try to get Hassan's side of the story.

When recounting how Baliwala called Aasiya to tell her that her husband had just been served with divorce papers and was heading out of the office, Hassan asked, "Do you consider that spying on me?"

"No," Baliwala answered.

The second witness of the day, Orchard Park Officer Joseph Kadi, testified about the night of the homicide. On cross-examination, Hassan said his wife had filed 12 police reports with Orchard Park police regarding domestic violence in an 18-month period, and neither Kadi or any other officer in the department ever bothered to interview Hassan regarding the incidents.

"Is that good police work?" Hassan asked the officer before the prosecution objected.

He also cited some contradictory statements that his wife made in a June 2007 police report that Kadi had previously interviewed her about. He asked Kadi if it was a crime to make a false statement to police.

Kadi said it was, but he also stated, "I would not have filed a police report if I did not believe what the person was telling me."

Bonanno lodged at least 20 objections to Hassan's questions during that cross-examination. All but a handful were sustained.

The trial continues today.

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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