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Was justice served in Lackawanna arson trial that scarred Muslim family?

After fire engulfed a Lackawanna apartment building in April 2017, certain facts were not in dispute.

The victims suffered horrific injuries. Investigators knew it was arson. The suspect's confession was on tape.

But what appeared to be a classic open-and-shut case has created more questions than answers and left the victims and their loved ones wondering why justice seems to have eluded them.

On Tuesday morning, a judge will sentence Corey Green, the man convicted of setting the fire that injured seven people. But his punishment appears to have everything to do with what he did to the building, but nothing to do with what he did to the people in it.

“It would have been less insulting just to acquit him,” said Yaser Soliman, whose brother, sister-in-law, nieces and nephew survived the arson.

Green was indicted on four counts of first-degree arson, Class A-1 felonies akin to first- or second-degree murder. But a jury found him guilty of third-degree arson, a less serious, Class C felony categorized under state law as “nonviolent.”

Prosecutors and Green’s defense attorney agree that the case came down to whether jurors believed it was a “reasonable possibility” Green would know people were inside when he set the building on fire.

The jury's decision came despite testimony that the building was home to four immigrant families. Prosecutors argued Green should have known the building was occupied because the Soliman family, like the other three Muslim families in the building, kept their shoes in the hallway outside their second-floor apartment, in keeping with their religion.

The family also kept a stroller next to a side door the arsonist would have entered, a door that led to the hallway where the fire started.

Authorities seek help identifying 'person of interest' in Lackawanna arson

Cars were parked in the driveway about 10 to 15 feet from the door when the fire started, Khaled Soliman testified, vehicles neighbors moved away from the building as it burned.

There were satellite dishes on the side of the building. Curtains hung in windows. A light triggered by a motion sensor operated at the side door.

A guilty verdict on four counts of first-degree arson would have carried a sentence of 25 years to life in prison. But because the jury found Green guilty of third-degree arson, the maximum sentence he could get from State Supreme Court Justice Christopher J. Burns is five to 15 years.

“He’s going to come out of prison as a nonviolent offender,” Yaser Soliman said. “It’s insane.”

Heroic rescue

The fire at 97 Ingham Ave., a 2 ½-story building off Ridge Road, started about 3:30 a.m. April 22, 2017. Khaled Soliman was doing work on his computer. Many in the building were able to escape. As the flames continued to spread, his wife Claudia Chamorro Soliman dropped her then-6-month-old daughter, Tasneem, out a second-story window into the arms of a neighbor.

The wife and mother soon was overcome by smoke and had to be rescued by Lackawanna firefighters, who also pulled Zaid Soliman from the apartment. Eleven firefighters were later recognized for their heroism. Khaled Soliman, after jumping from the second story, lay on the ground with a bone sticking out of his leg, his brother remembers.

Claudia Chamorro Soliman spent a month in a coma after being pulled from the fire and had to be resuscitated at the scene by firefighters. Khaled Soliman still uses a wheelchair due to the injuries he suffered jumping out of the second-floor window with one of his daughters in his arms.

In the hospital, then-3-year-old Zaid screamed “Auntie, help me!” as nurses changed the bandages on his charred limbs. Another daughter, Zainab, now 6, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has facial scars from her injuries in the fire.

In total, six people remained hospitalized after the fire. Investigators immediately deemed the fire suspicious. About three weeks later, a $10,000 reward was offered, gathered by leaders in Lackawanna’s Muslim community.

Woman in coma, five others remain hospitalized after fire in Lackawanna

On Jan. 2, 2018, authorities announced charges against Green, then 20. He had been in Lackawanna police custody since Dec. 13, officials said at the time.

During the seven-day trial this summer, firefighters, doctors, police and the victims testified about the events of that day and the subsequent investigation.

One of the investigators, Lackawanna Police Capt. Aaron Brennan, told the jury Green said something after being arrested on a marijuana charge and then was questioned about the fire, denying involvement.

“You think I give a [expletive] about some crispy-ass Arabs?” Brennan testified Green said to him on his way out of an interview.

Green didn’t take the stand during the trial, but prosecutors submitted evidence of recorded conversations between Green and two of his uncles. In the recordings, Green admits to starting the fire.

The jury reached its verdict Aug. 21 on its second day of deliberations.

Yaser Soliman said after the jury initially came back deadlocked, he expected there would be a hung jury and a mistrial declared. Instead, what they got was a verdict they see as “dehumanizing.”

“The children were deprived of justice,” he said.

Zainab Soliman was 4 at the time of the fire. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has facial scars from her injuries. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The family lauded the efforts of police and prosecutors who handled the investigation and the case. Officials did “everything in their power” to pursue justice, Yaser Soliman said. At the same time, he said he saw possible issues with the jury. Some jurors reacted “dramatically” during the trial, he said. One juror took out a cellphone and started texting when the prosecutor was speaking. One laughed out loud during closing statements.

He also said he believes the jury was hesitant to see Green sent away for life. No real motive for the crime was established at trial. Authorities did not allege a hate crime took place. Green was recorded saying that he committed another arson, though authorities did not develop any further information about it. Green also was recorded saying he got paid for the first arson but not the second one because he hit the “wrong house.”

Prosecutors didn’t have any proof or corroboration Green got paid for starting the fire. The defense argued that Green thought he was setting a vacant house on fire.

Sometimes juries gravitate toward one word or phrase in a trial, and it’s possible in this case the jury did that with the defense’s assertions that Green thought the building was vacant, Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn said.

“They threw it against the wall and it stuck, apparently,” Flynn said of the defense’s claims Green thought no one lived in the building.

When attorneys on both sides wrapped up their cases, Brian K. Parker, Green’s attorney, asked the judge to allow the jury to consider third-degree arson charges in addition to the higher charges. Prosecutors objected, but the judge allowed it.

Burns’ decision to allow the lesser-included charges was appropriate, according to attorneys on both sides.

According to Parker, prosecutors wanted the jury to accept what Green said on the recording about committing the arson, but not to accept as truth other things stated in the recording. Green admitted setting the fire but said he was paid by his uncle to start it because of a dispute with someone who supposedly lived in the apartment building, according to Parker. The uncle, who was accused in the recording of paying his nephew, was a witness for the prosecution and denied any involvement during his own testimony.

“By the DA’s own admission, and the Lackawanna police, they didn’t believe that part to be true,” the defense attorney said, “so they want to take a snippet – ‘I did it’ – out of an 18-minute recording, throw the rest of it out and ask the jury to convict my client based on that.”

‘You shouldn’t have to do that’

It’s unclear if religion played a role in the case's outcome.

Claudia Chamorro Soliman, the severely injured mother, testified wearing a niqāb, a piece of clothing some Muslim women wear to cover their faces. She was asked while on the stand by Assistant District Attorney Paul Glascott about what she wore over her face and about her religion.

Parker, the defense attorney, asked her whether other tenants in the building were Muslim, if a local mosque owned the building, as well as to whom the mosque rents its apartments.

While he was on the stand, Yaser Soliman also was asked by prosecutors and the defense about how the mosque related to the tenants and the building ownership. In his closing statement, Glascott talked about having asked jurors during the selection process whether anyone had any “issues with Muslims.” He talked about Chamorro Soliman’s clothing and why she wore it.

“But I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, Claudia is still a person in pain,” Glascott told the jury, according to the transcript.

Corey Green was found guilty on four counts of third-degree arson. (Courtesy Erie County Sheriff's Office)

Some jurors seemed to react when seeing Claudia first enter the courtroom, prosecutors said. It wasn’t that they necessarily disliked her, just that her appearance was not something they were accustomed to. Prosecutors wanted to remind the jury that she was just like the jurors, regardless of her religion.

Had the jurors heard from a witness who may have looked more like they did, they probably would not have had to be reminded of that, Flynn said.

“It’s sad,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to do that.”

Flynn said he believes racism had some role in the crime, though it didn’t come out at trial and prosecutors didn’t prove it played a role. But does Flynn think it played a role in the jury’s verdict?

“My answer to that is I would certainly hope not,” he said, “but I just don’t know.”

Parker said he doesn’t think race or religion were issues and that he didn’t make any issue of it at trial. He said some of the questions involving the religion of tenants were asked “just for background.”

“If there’s allegations of issues with other tenants getting kicked out, I wanted to explore that with the witnesses to the extent I could,” he told The Buffalo News.

Prosecutors did not offer Green a plea deal.

When asked why he thought the jury convicted his client on the lower arson charge, Parker said he believed the jury might have had issues with the credibility of Green’s two uncles.

“His choices were to plead to an A felony with life at the end of it or go to trial,” Parker said, “and that’s what he chose. And it wasn’t even really a debate when that was the situation. I can’t walk a 20-year-old with no record into a life sentence when there’s nothing being offered.”

For the victims, the effects of that April night linger.

Zainab Soliman still has nightmares. Zaid Soliman underwent skin grafts and has permanent scarring. Khaled Soliman, due to his spinal injury, can’t sit for long periods without pain. Claudia Chamorro Soliman, the wife and mother who suffered severe burns and smoke inhalation, is still trying to put the pieces of her life back together. For Yaser Soliman, who has had to watch relatives suffer, the trial and its outcome constitute a miscarriage of justice.

“For four people whose lives are absolutely devastated,” he said, “[Green’s] up for parole in four years.”

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