Guilty verdicts in West Philly triple murder trial
The trial lasted nearly three weeks. The jury took an hour and a half. On Wednesday afternoon, at the end of a contentious trial, five men and seven women convicted Ibrahim Muhammed and Nalik Scott in the 2011 triple murder of a West Philadelphia bodega owner and his wife and sister.
The trial lasted nearly three weeks.
The jury took an hour and a half.
On Wednesday afternoon, at the end of a contentious trial, five men and seven women convicted Ibrahim Muhammed and Nalik Scott in the 2011 triple murder of a West Philadelphia bodega owner and his wife and sister.
The men were found guilty on all charges: three counts of first-degree murder, conspiracy, robbery, and firearms offenses. They now face the death penalty; sentencing hearings will begin Thursday.
In his closing argument Wednesday morning, Assistant District Attorney Carlos Vega returned to the testimony at the heart of the prosecution's case: the words of Jessica Nunez and her sister Laura, who were working in the family's bodega when their parents, Porfirio and Juana Nunez, and aunt Lina Sanchez were killed on Sept. 6, 2011.
"They took my family," Jessica Nunez had testified, identifying Muhammed and Scott as the gunmen who burst into the Lorena Grocery at 52nd and Parrish Streets. "In less than two minutes, I didn't have a family."
In court Wednesday, she waited with her relatives for the verdict.
"I almost passed out the first time I heard, 'Guilty,' " she said afterward.
Defense attorneys for Muhammed and Scott had argued that police, eager to make a break in the case, had arrested the wrong men - and that the Nunez sisters' identifications of them were mistaken, fueled by stress and fear.
Vega told the jury that the defendants' faces were "singed" into the sisters' minds.
"Have the courage those little girls had to stand up and say, 'You're guilty, and you're not going to get away with it,' " he told the panel.
He read to the jury Muhammed's confession - which the defense had argued was false, taken from him while he was off his medication for schizophrenia.
Vega countered that Muhammed functioned normally in society and had "wheeled and dealed" with detectives, trying to minimize his culpability.
The defense's case hinged, unusually, on two other bodega robberies that police had connected to the murders at Lorena. Over a 21/2-week trial, they argued that witness descriptions and video footage from all three robberies did not match their clients. They offered two men as alternate suspects, including one whose fingerprint had been found at the scene of one of the earlier robberies.
On Wednesday, Vega argued that the defense did not present enough evidence on those men, and suggested that witnesses to the other robberies had been intimidated. He called the Nunez sisters' identifications unshakable. "She is seeing death before her," Vega said. "It's that face she can't forget."
The defense moved for a mistrial at the end of the closing argument, arguing that Vega had appealed heavily to the jury's sympathy and tried to shift the burden of proof to the defense.
Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn Bronson denied the request, saying Vega had employed the same "oratorical flair" the defense had in its closings Tuesday.
Then the jury began deliberations. The hallway filled with family members of the defendants and victims alike. They waited for about 90 minutes until the jury returned to the courtroom.
As the forewoman read the verdict, the victims' friends and family closed their eyes and sighed. Next to them in the courtroom, the families of Muhammed and Scott sobbed. In the courthouse hallway, Scott's mother collapsed, screaming.
"I just want to hold my son," she cried.
Defense attorneys Jack McMahon, who represented Scott, and Larry Krasner, who represented Muhammed, said that their clients are innocent and that they were shocked by the verdicts.
They said they were surprised by how quickly the jury returned and by the fact that during deliberation, jurors did not ask to see any of the evidence presented during trial.
"I've heard 'guilty' many times - every trial lawyer has. But I'm taking it a little bit harder, because I truly believe Nalik Scott is an innocent man," McMahon said. "We lost to overwhelming emotion. As soon as those girls testified, [the jury's] minds were made up."
Vega said he was "very happy and very relieved" by the verdict.
"I've been with these girls since 2012," he said of the Nunez sisters. "I've watched them grow up. I'm so happy that finally they got to tell their story."
In the months after the murders, more than five years ago, Jessica Nunez had promised her family she would find the killers - and returned to work at the bodega, hoping to spot the gunmen.
"All I felt then was anger. All I kept seeing was the three bodies on the floor," she said. "Today, I felt only peace."