Verdict expected in convenience store murder trial
The closing arguments in the trial of a Sanford man, who is accused of murdering a convenience store clerk, came to an end Monday. The jury is expected to return to court this morning and deliberate on the verdict.
Brian McQueen is accused of robbing the Jackpot Mini Mart in August of 2009 and, in the process, killing store owner Amad Ashmar and wounding Ashmar's brother, Ali Mustafa. McQueen, who was 19 at the time, turned himself into authorities and eventually admitted to the crime, and he and his attorneys still don't deny that he was the gunman.
Early in the arguments Monday, McQueen broke from his usual stony demeanor and cried for a short time before returning to sitting still, staring at his lap. Members of Ashmar's family also cried and at times left the courtroom, saying afterward it has been a draining experience. His son A.J., who was a teenager when he watched from the parking lot as his father was gunned down nearly five years ago, said that moment changed everything.
"Life would've been different if he were still alive," A.J. said. " Everything would've been easier. I wouldn't have had to worry as much about the future."
The state is pursuing the death penalty against McQueen, and his defense attorneys have fought against that outcome for the past two weeks in court. The defense claimed that McQueen, as a person with an IQ nearly low enough to qualify as intellectually disabled and an emotionally damaging upbringing, should be spared execution. They also argued Monday that the state never sufficiently proved that McQueen could and did decide to commit murder, a key part of a first-degree murder conviction.
On the other hand, the state contends that McQueen's actions were deliberate and even cold-blooded. McQueen got the gun the day before, the prosecution argued, waited in nearby woods until closing time, walked into the Lee Avenue store and looked around for a short time, then shot Ashmar and Mustafa, demanded and got money from Mustafa, shot Ashmar again, got more money, shot at Mustafa again but missed, and then calmly walked back out of the store.
"There is no doubt that the defendant in this case intentionally killed Eddie Ashmar," said assistant district attorney Matt Craven, referring to the victim by his nickname and adding, "When Eddie put up his arms to beg for life, he shot him one more time."
However, the defense said the jury shouldn't necessarily believe Ashmar was begging for his life. That detail was based on testimony by Mustafa and by A.J.
But the defense said A.J. wasn't a direct eyewitness, and that Mustafa originally told medical providers he had passed out after being shot, and only now has changed his story to say that he did witness his brother trying to surrender.
"You're pulling for him because he lost his brother, and it's compelling," defense attorney Timothy Morris told the jury. "But it's just not there. ... It makes for a good story. It's just not the truth. And again, this family's suffered a tremendous loss ... but the law's not about revenge. It's about truth."
Morris also mentioned that one detective originally noted there could have been a struggle in the store. However, Morris said, police never followed up on that theory or did blood or gunshot residue tests to try to get a more accurate idea of what happened. He said several Sanford Police Department detectives also gave inconsistent accounts or gave factually inaccurate information while in court — all of which he said helped the prosecution's case.
And Morris' co-counsel, Robert Buzzard, later reminded the jury of those minor discrepancies that were documented, asking if they believed people who made small mistakes or changes might make bigger ones. He reminded the jury of the consequences of their decision, which could be made as soon as today.
"The whole purpose of the trial is to put forth information to you, to make and informed decision," Buzzard said. "And they just haven't done that."
Assistant district attorney Mike Beam told the jurors that the defense was simply reaching for tricks and loopholes to get a conviction for a lesser crime — but if the jury fell for it, McQueen could potentially be a free man some day.
"Second-degree murder, the primary reason that's so desperately urged upon you, is there's no possibility of the death penalty or even life in prison," he said.
He ended by telling them, "All it takes for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing."