Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Retrial in murder of former Raider’s daughter begins
Jurors in the retrial of the man previously convicted of twice strangling a former Oakland Raider’s daughter at a San Mateo rehabilitation program more than a decade ago were told yesterday to prepare for a “dark journey” in which they will learn how his temper and her nature to help others fatally collided after she ended the relationship.
Mohammad Haroon Ali, 36, killed Tracy Biletnikoff just shy of her 20th birthday after he told her of a drug and alcohol relapse because she wouldn’t give him her car keys and he worried about problems of his own creation — mainly testing dirty the next day, risking deportation and starting from scratch in the Project 90 rehab program, said District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, who is prosecuting the case.
Ali murdered Biletnikoff “viciously, no excuse, no explanation other than she got in the way,” Wagstaffe said during opening statements before a packed courtroom including family of both the defendant and victim.
But defense attorney Peter Goldscheider gave jurors another portrait of Ali in asking them to find his client guilty of manslaughter rather than premeditated murder. Ali was motivated by two things that weren’t known during his first trial, namely the rejection of another woman who had aborted his child and a bipolar disorder that went undiagnosed until he was imprisoned, Goldscheider said.
Ali’s killing of Biletnikoff came during a “particularly tense and provocative” exchange “between these two lovers that day” and the hands he put on her shoulder after she blocked his exit at the rehab center somehow made it up around her neck, Goldscheider said.
The crux of the case before the jury is not whether Ali strangled Biletnikoff first with his hands and then with a knotted T-shirt before dumping her partially nude body down a ravine at Cañada College in Redwood City. Instead, the attorneys are debating the details they say either prove Ali deliberately killed his girlfriend because she was leaving him or that the death was a crime of passion after which he failed to take responsibility. The defense argues Biletnikoff was dead before the second strangulation but Wagstaffe said his forensic expert will prove otherwise, therefore illustrating Ali’s intent to kill. The answers reached by jurors will determine the degree of homicide and therefore how much time, if any, Ali must still serve in prison.
Wagstaffe successfully prosecuted Ali in 2001 and he was sentenced to 60 years to life in prison for first-degree murder and a previous kidnapping. In 2009, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction, ruling that Wagstaffe had improperly removed at least one black individual from the jury pool for racial discrimination reasons. Wagstaffe, now the elected district attorney, maintains the ruling was incorrect.
If jurors convict Ali of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder this time, he faces 11 years
During his opening remarks, Wagstaffe projected photos of the rehab center, Friendship Hall, and the community college that were taken back in 1999. Much of the trial will also revisit the same evidence and witnesses although Goldscheider’s revelations of another woman and mental illness is completely new.
Both sides agree Ali and Biletnikoff met in 1997 while in their respective drug treatment programs and began a romantic relationship the following summer. Ali became a counselor at Project 90, the treatment program he entered while on probation for forcibly kidnapping a former girlfriend, and while “everything seemed fine” Biletnikoff had grown ambivalent about the relationship, Wagstaffe said.
The weekend prior to her Feb. 15, 1999 death, Biletnikoff spent time with a childhood friend while Ali went drinking in San Francisco with another friend and continued on a bender up and down the Peninsula involving alcohol, heroin and cocaine. On the Monday after that weekend, Ali confessed his relapse to Biletnikoff who drove him from her East Bay home back to Project 90’s meeting space at the Friendship Hall in San Mateo.
“That is the Florence Nightingale in her coming out,” Wagstaffe said.
What happened during the time described as roughly an hour they were alone inside an office is only known to Ali but Wagstaffe told jurors he was worried about what his relapse meant and was angry Biletnikoff refused to give him her car keys so he could evade his probation drug test the next day. Roughly 80 people attended a program meeting in the adjacent room but none reported hearing anything and a fellow participant who encountered Ali leaving the center after the killing said he did not seem unusual.
Ali gave his family and authorities six different stories after the death, ranging from accidentally killing her with an elbow blow to his blacking out while strangling her and denials she was still alive when he switched from manual strangulation to the ligature. Ali, who Goldscheider said plans to testify, now contends Biletnikoff grew angry over the other woman during that final confrontation.
“This is a man that lying is part of his nature,” Wagstaffe said.
What is known, Wagstaffe said, is that Ali moved Biletnikoff’s body using a Project 90 van — the same vehicle he used during his weekend relapse — and threw her body “like a piece of trash” off the side of Parking Lot Three at Cañada College. Her jeans had been removed which Goldscheider said was his attempt to stage the crime scene to look like a sexual assault in his post-murder panic.
Wagstaffe said Ali drove the van and body first to his family’s home and asked his nephew if he wanted to see it before asking for money. Ali has denied doing so, instead saying after leaving the body he returned the van and grabbed Biletnikoff’s car which he drove to Mexico.
Ali tried re-entering the United States shortly after and authorities, now alerted to the crime by Ali’s uncle, arrested him near the border.
Aside from Biletnikoff’s death, jurors will also hear from and about two of Ali’s former girlfriends to show how he reacts to breakups, Wagstaffe said.
The first was kidnapped by force twice and held for several days, leading to his felony probation and ultimate path to Project 90. The second was a 15-year-old girl who Ali, then 22, impregnated in Parking Lot Three of Cañada College in 1998 and later rekindled a relationship with after seeing her at Carlmont High School while making an anti-drug and alcohol presentation. Her parents had sent her back to Fiji but she returned to San Mateo County for her junior year of high school. The relationship continued up until Biletnikoff’s death, marked by a Valentine’s Day gift from Ali just days before, Wagstaffe said.
Goldscheider told jurors the prosecution presented a “one-sided, distorted and inaccurate version of facts.” While his client foolishly did not call 911 after Biletnikoff’s death and tried to avoid suspicion by leaving her body, Goldscheider said those facts have no bearing on the case. He also said Ali returned to the United States after his brief flight to Mexico “because it was the right thing to do” and he was weighed down by his actions.
“Everywhere he went he saw Tracy’s face,” Goldscheider said.
Ali remains in custody without bail. The prosecution continues its case today.