Witness for the Prosecution: Shop Owner Re-lives Killing in Court

Home Brooklyn Life Witness for the Prosecution: Shop Owner Re-lives Killing in Court

Judge Joel M. Goldberg looked impatiently across his courtroom. The trial of The People vs. Donald Michel should have started at 10:15 a.m. It was now 11. The gallery and jury box remained empty. Defense attorney Adrian Ellis ran a yellow highlighter through case documents. Michel sat next to his attorney, staring straight ahead. A red tie peeked through the collar of his slate grey sweater. His hair was short, goatee short and neatly trimmed. The charge against him: murder in the first degree.

“Could you ask Mr. Walsh what his arrival time is going to be?” Goldberg asked. Robert Walsh, the assistant district attorney, was not at his table, having left an intern in his stead.

The intern rushed out of the courtroom to find Walsh.

“Tell him I expect him here,” Goldberg said

Walsh walked into the courtroom two minutes later. Sason Shokrany, his first witness of the day, had been late arriving at the office that morning. Shokrany hadn’t finished reviewing grand jury testimony he had given two years ago in the killing of Zalmai Anwari – the Afghan cab driver that Michel allegedly shot twice in the head.  Walsh requested additional time to lead his witness, an Iranian-born Israeli immigrant, through the documents.

“I’m bringing in the jury in two minutes, with or without you,” Goldberg said.

The judge did so exactly two minutes later, with a special message.

“I apologize for the delay,” he told the 15 men and women in the jury box. “It was all my fault.”

It had all started as Shokrany stared into his laptop. It was December 29, 2008, on 1009 Ave. Z in Sheepshead Bay. That’s where Shokrany’s shop – David’s Closeout – did business, selling a variety of cell phones, cellphone accessories, and assorted other goods. A dark blue awning topped the storefront. NYPD sweatshirts hung in the window. Now, in Walsh’s direct examination, Shokrany said he saw a man in a red hoodie enter the store, while another, taller man stood outside the door with a large blue shopping bag.

“In a split second,” he testified, “I knew something was going on.”

The man in red asked Shokrany if he had a charger for his cell phone – an old Nokia model he pulled out of his pocket and set on the glass display case between them. Yes, Shokrany had the charger the man was looking for. It was somewhere on the wall behind him that, according to photographs shown in court, was jam-packed with cell phone accessories in plastic cases. Shokrany testified that he feared what would happen if he turned his back to get the charger. He did so anyway. As he faced forward, the customer pulled out a gun and pointed it directly at Shokrany’s stomach.

“If you don’t want to die, you’ll do what I ask you to do,” Shokrany testified the man told him. The taller man with the shopping bag was standing outside the door, holding it shut. Inside, the hooded man pushed Shokrany into the store’s office, a small walled-in alcove in the corner. Shokrany told the court that the gun the man held was an old-style revolver. He could see bullets in its chambers. The man asked Shokrany how to open the cash register. Shokrany told him.

“What’s that?” Shokrany testified the man asked next. He motioned toward the cell phone clipped on Shokrany’s belt, then snatched it. He began to move out of the office. As he did so, the taller man with the shopping bag entered the store. He walked behind the glass case, opened his bag, and started shoveling in the phones on display.

“It’s a mess out there,” the taller man said to his accomplice, according to Shokrany. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”

With the robbers’ attention diverted, Shokrany inched toward the entrance of the small office. He saw the two men look up from the glass case, out the window at the front of the store. Zalmai Anwari was looking inside the shop. Shokrany recognized him, but didn’t know his name. Anwari had only started working at the car service next door five days previous, Walsh told The Brooklyn Ink. The robbers proceeded toward the exit, toward Anwari.

Shokrany testified that the two robbers left the blue shopping bag behind the counter when they walked out of the store. The tall man, now bag-less, went first. The gunman in the red hoodie followed. Shokrany told the court he followed both of them, to try to warn the people outside the store. This all happened in a matter of seconds.

“I could feel that something bad was going to happen,” he told the court. His voice began to waver.

He said he was holding the door to his shop open as the two robbers turned left on Avenue Z. They stopped under the bright yellow car service sign next door. Anwari stood on the curb, his hands held up, palms forward, shoulder height.

The gunman, he told the court, “pulled the trigger two times – boom, boom.” The accomplices ran away.

Anwari lay on the ground, his head on the street and body on the sidewalk. Shokrany ran up to Anwari, hoping he could help. Blood ran from Anwari’s head and into the gutter. Shokrany yelled at the car service employees to call an ambulance. They already had. Shokrany saw it speeding towards him less than a minute later.

Walsh brought his examination of Shokrany to a close with a final question straight out of a courtroom drama.

“Is there anybody in the courtroom now who was also there when this incident took place?” he asked, leaning against the short wall separating the lawyer’s tables from the gallery.

Shokrany took a long, lingering look around the courtroom, beginning with the jury box to his left. He slowly turned his head towards the prosecutors, then the attorney’s podium, then the gallery, before finally training his eye directly at the defense table. Shokrany fixed his stare on Michel for five seconds that easily seemed twice as long.

“That’s the guy, ” Shokrany said, pointing at Michel, who remained staring straight ahead. “In the sweater. He pulled the trigger.”

Defense attorney Ellis would not directly address the identification in cross-examination. But he did address nearly everything else.

Ellis wasted no time. His first line of questions went immediately to race. Could it be that Shokrany was immediately suspicious of both men because they were black?

“No,” Shokrany said. He recalled a previous time he had been robbed, as a jewelry store employee. “I know how they work,” he said.

Were these other robbers black, Ellis asked?

“Yes,” Shokrany said.

Ellis continued. The day after the incident, Ellis told the court, Shokrany told an assistant district attorney he had seen the hooded man in his store a few weeks previous. That time he was accompanied by a “faggot guy.”

“I assume by ‘faggot guy,’ you mean a homosexual?” Ellis asked.

“Yes,” Shokrany responded.  Shokrany said the man was white, and assumed he had Italian origins.  Ellis asked if he suspected this “faggot guy” of anything suspicious when he saw him. Shokrany said no.

In his testimony given the day after the incident, Shokrany said he “did not know how to describe [the gun used on December 29].” Ellis read this quote back to Shokrany with an accusatory tone.

“Is your memory of the incident better now than it was back then?” Ellis asked.

“Yes,” Shokrany replied flatly.

Ellis asked if this was the first time Shokrany had a gun pointed at him. He said it was. Was he fearful for his life? Yes. In a state of panic? Yes as well. Ellis placed a photograph of the exterior of the shop on the courtroom projector, pointing to the two large NYPD sweatshirts hanging in the window. Together, the sweatshirts blocked much of the view into the interior of the shop.

“Were those sweatshirts hanging there on December 29, 2008?” Ellis asked. Shokrany said they were. Then how, Ellis wondered, could he tell it was Anwari on the other side of the window?

Ellis spent the next 20 minutes reviewing the moment when the two men exited the store. How long were the men behind the counter? How many phones did they take? How could he see Anwari from his position in the office?

It is approaching 1 p.m. The jurors begin to fidget. A woman juror with green earrings and a braided ponytail picks at her nails. Walsh turns around in his chair and eyes the clock. Michel yawns. It’s as animated as he would be for all of Shokrany’s testimony.

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