(FOX 9) - Mahdi Ali was only a teenager when he was convicted 11 years ago of killing three men in a botched robbery of the Seward Market in Minneapolis.
But the man who sealed his conviction, his accomplice in the robbery, now says he lied to police and the jury to frame Mahdi Ali for the killings.
It is one of the revelations from a nine-month FOX 9 investigation that raises new questions about key witnesses, physical evidence, and the legal justification for sentencing a teenager to life in prison.
"I’m not the one," said Mahdi Ali, who is serving a 90-year prison sentence at Oak Park Heights, Minnesota’s maximum-security prison.
"I hope they (the victims’ families) find justice. I hope they find answers. But, I’m not the one," he said.
Mahdi Ali speaks with FOX 9 Investigators.
On the night of January 6, 2010, three men were murdered inside the Seward Market on Franklin Avenue.
It took only 60 seconds.
There is no dispute over the basic facts of the case because the crime was captured on surveillance video. It shows at 7:44 p.m. two masked men walk into the market. One of the men is armed with a handgun.
The surveillance video contains no audio, but it shows the two store clerks - Mohamed Warfa and his cousin Osman Elmi - complying with the gunman’s request to lay on the ground.
The unarmed accomplice goes to the back of the store to rob two customers who will later lock themselves in a freezer in the back of the store.
A few seconds into the robbery a customer, Anwar Mohammed, walks into the market interrupting the robbery in progress. His entry startles the gunman who orders the man to the ground and quickly shoots him in the head.
Warfa, the store clerk, lunges at the gunman and he, too, is shot and killed.
The gunman and his accomplice flee the market, stepping over Warfa’s body in the doorway.
Elmi, the other store clerk, gets on his cell phone to call 911. But, the gunman returns a few seconds later and chases Elmi through the store, knocking over store racks, then shoots and kills Elmi.
As the gunman leaves the market for a second time, he fires an additional round at the dying customer on the floor.
The days that followed the killings were filled with grief, shock, and anger in Minnesota’s Somali American community.
"To have their lives cut short is heartbreaking, and that heartbreak stays with the families," said Abdi Warfa, a cousin of the two store clerks and a spokesperson for the victims’ families.
The three victims were murdered at pivotal points in their lives. Anwar Mohammed had recently married. Osman Elmi was engaged. Mohamed Warfa was a married father with four young children.
Within 48 hours, Minneapolis Police arrested two teenagers for the murders: Ahmed Shire Ali, 18, and Mahdi Hussein Ali, 17. The two suspects were friends who shared a common surname but are not related.
Detectives with the Minneapolis Police Homicide Unit questioned Mahdi for five hours without an attorney present.
During the interrogation, Mahdi appears cocky and indifferent.
The detectives were clearly frustrated by what they saw as his evasiveness.
"If I was sitting in your chair, and someone was telling me where they were when a murder happened, I wouldn’t be as relaxed as you are," a detective tells him.
Mahdi describes a night out with two friends, driving around the Twin Cities, hanging out, and smoking marijuana.
Mahdi, who lived with his grandmother in the Riverside Apartments across the street from the Seward Market, told detectives he arrived home around 10:30 p.m. and saw the squad cars and crime tape surrounding the market.
Detectives were already developing a timeline of events from surveillance video at various locations, like a Super America gas station and the city impound lot.
But Mahdi was elusive about the details.
"I do forget some things. I do smoke weed," Mahdi tells the detectives.
A detective challenges him: "You don’t know much about anything to be honest with you. Because you are lying about little things. I don’t believe a word you’re saying. You’re telling me you weren’t there, you weren’t here."
"Why would I lie?" Mahdi asks.
"Exactly," the detective says.
Detectives made it clear, there was a competing narrative from his friends down the hall.
"We’ve got other people in rooms right now," the detective explains.
Detectives were also interviewing the two young men Mahdi was with that night - Ahmed Ali and his cousin, Abdisalan Ali.
Ahmed told police Mahdi had talked about "going on a mission" that night to rob the Seward Market, believing it had lots of money on hand from a money wiring business. Ahmed said he went to the back of the store to rob the customers, while Mahdi, who had the handgun, shot the clerks because they recognized him.
Abdisalan told detectives he was dropped off at home before the robbery.
But according to court transcripts and police records, Abdisalan gave a very different version of events to a classmate the day after the killings.
The classmate told police Abdisalan spoke to him in a high school restroom and said he was at the Seward Market that night.
Abdisalan allegedly told the classmate details about the killings that were not yet public. Abdisalan knew about the customer walking in on the robbery and the killer stepping over a body in the doorway, the classmate told police.
According to a court transcript, the classmate said, "He (Abdisalan) said he wanted to kill Mahdi to protect himself and his cousin (Ahmed)."
After the classmate contacted police, Abdisalan was briefly the prime suspect for the murders, until Abdisalan and Ahmed identified Mahdi as the killer.
Mahdi believes the two cousins conspired against him.
"You got two cousins saying I was with him, and he did it, not framing each other, but rather framing me," Mahdi said.
Abdisalan was never charged with a crime and could not be reached for comment. Ahmed, in exchange for his testimony, accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He will be released next year.
For several months, Ahmed Ali had declined to talk to the FOX 9 Investigators about his role in the killings - until last month when Ahmed Ali finally agreed to an interview.
An Accomplice Changes His Story
Ahmed Ali was recently transferred to Oak Park Heights Prison, the same prison where Mahdi Ali is serving his sentence. The two are kept in separate units of the prison.
Ahmed wouldn’t agree to be interviewed on camera, wanting to maintain his anonymity when he is released from prison next year. But, he allowed a voice recording of the interview.
In a startling reversal, Ahmed now claims Mahdi did not participate in the murder of three men in the Seward Market.
"I feel guilty about that," Ahmed said.
"I was protecting someone else. And he (Mahdi) ended up taking the fall for something he didn’t end up doing," Ahmed said.
Ahmed admits he was the accomplice, but he said the killer was not Mahdi or his cousin Abdisalan.
Ahmed claims the killer is another man altogether, a close friend he would not identify, who died a couple of years ago from a drug overdose. Ahmed said he isn’t revealing the man’s name to shield the man’s family from shame.
Ahmed said that night Abdisalan was dropped off at his home around 6:15, and that he was dropped off around 7 o’clock near the market, 44 minutes before the killings.
Asked why he would frame Mahdi for the killings, Ahmed paused, and said, "Honestly, I don’t know. I was young at the time. I had a lot of people in my ear, close family friends, closer than Mahdi, at the time. He (Mahdi) ended up becoming the scapegoat, I guess."
Ahmed said he wasn’t paid or offered anything to change the account he gave police and a jury. That testimony was instrumental in convicting Mahdi of the murders.
There was also DNA evidence in the case. In a search of Mahdi’s bedroom, detectives found a tiny drop of blood inside the cuff of Mahdi’s jeans.
The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s crime lab discovered the blood matched the major DNA profile of Mohamed Warfa, whose body the killer stepped over while escaping the Seward Market.
But there was something peculiar about that DNA evidence, which is so often persuasive with a jury.
Court testimony revealed it also contained DNA from three other people, including an investigator with the BCA who was not assigned to the case.
A spokesperson for the BCA told the FOX 9 Investigators that whenever a DNA sample contains a mixture of DNA, the BCA runs it against a database of BCA employees as a quality control check. The follow-up ruled out the BCA employee as a possible source of the mixture, the spokesperson said.
Mahdi is not convinced. He believes there was a lab mix up, or the evidence was planted.
And with a crime scene as bloody as this, he wonders how there could be only a small drop on his jeans, and nowhere else - not his shoes, or even the car they were driving.
Mahdi also claims he has an alibi and that video surveillance from Fairview Hospital would show him returning the car to a friend who works there, at almost the same time as the killings. The full video was never admitted into evidence, but a few still photos are among the exhibits.
Mahdi said it wasn’t a factor in the case because his defense attorney, Fred Goetz, was focused on him not getting life without parole. Goetz declined to comment saying he doesn’t remember details of the case.
"I don’t think it serves society at all to put the wrong person behind bars," said Michelle Gross of Communities United Against Police Brutality, who has gotten to know Mahdi during his time in prison.
Gross sees parallels in Mahdi’s case to that of Myon Burrell, who was released from prison last December after the Minnesota Board of Pardons commuted his life sentence.
Gross said Burrell was also convicted on the testimony of unreliable witnesses with something to gain, and police under intense pressure to solve the case.
A Mysterious Background
Mahdi Ali’s background, even his real name and age, are shrouded in mystery.
Speaking for the first time at Oak Park Heights Prison, he holds up two childhood photos to a visitor room window.
"This is me, in Kenya," he said.
Born Khalid Farah, he grew up in a Nairobi suburb popular with Somali refugees. The youngest of 11 children, his mother, Sainab Osman, was sick and not able to raise him. He was raised by siblings, neighbors, and friends.
Mahdi said he always had dreams of living in America. The opportunity came in the form of a childhood tragedy when he was nine years old.
"I had a friend, Mahdi Hassan Ali, who died tragically," he said.
He said the boy’s parents convinced him to assume their son’s identity and join them in coming to America.
He left Kenya a year later without telling a soul.
U.S. Immigration assigned him a generic birthdate when he arrived in the United States, and not uncommon practice with Somali refugees, of January 1, 1993.
But his birth mother, Sainab Osman, speaking through an interpreter, said her son is actually 20 months younger. She provided a Kenyan birth certificate that shows he was born August 25, 1994, with the name Khalid Farah.
That birthdate would make him 15 years old, not 17, at the time of the killings.
Shortly after arriving in Minnesota, the couple who brought him to the U.S. separated.
For the next five years, Mahdi was essentially raised on the streets of Cedar Riverside neighborhood - shoplifting, struggling in school, drifting from one group home to another.
Child protection records confirm his account.
His American dream would become a Minnesota nightmare.
"I felt betrayed and abandoned by the people who brought me over. They said they would take care of me," Mahdi said.
"Prison was where I was headed, other than being killed," Mahdi said.
Before Mahdi’s trial, a special hearing was held to determine his age, and whether he was 15 or 17 years old at the time of the murders. Those two years could mean the difference between standing trial as a juvenile or an adult.
Meanwhile, DNA tests revealed the woman he knew as his grandmother, was in fact, his mother, who testified to the authenticity of his Kenyan birth certificate.
But prosecutors had experts who said dental x-rays of Mahdi’s teeth indicated his real age was likely 17.
The use of dental x-rays to determine a defendant’s age is an extremely controversial forensic technique, prohibited in some courts, with a potential margin of error of at least two years.
Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill ruled that Mahdi Ali would stand trial as an adult.
Mahdi Ali was charged with three counts of first-degree murder, one count for each life taken.
The trial took two weeks. The prosecution called 34 witnesses, including the cousins who pinned the killings on Mahdi - a story that Ahmed has now said was a lie.
The defense called only three witnesses and finished after just 47 minutes.
Mahdi never took the stand and never addressed the victims’ families, something he says he regrets to this day.
"I apologize if I came off as someone who didn’t care about their pain. I was just a 16-year-old kid, and I didn’t understand the magnitude of the situation," Mahdi said.
The jury took just seven hours to reach its verdict: Guilty of second-degree murder for two of the victims. But, the jury saw premeditation when the gunman ran back into the store to kill the second clerk.
On that count alone, Judge Cahill sentenced Mahdi under Minnesota’s heinous crimes statute to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
A Legal Loophole
Nine months after Mahdi’s conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller vs. Alabama that juveniles should be afforded different consideration when it comes to life sentences.
The court said mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juveniles, without considering the defendant’s circumstances and potential for rehabilitation. The Justices said such a sentence could violate the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
But the justices left a loophole: the U.S. Supreme Court said nothing about consecutive sentences piled on top of each other.
So, when Mahdi’s case came back to judge Cahill for re-sentencing, he stacked the sentences consecutively, 30 years for each life taken - a total of 90 years in prison.
Cahill was clear about his end-run around the U.S. Supreme Court.
"My imposing consecutive sentences is my message to future generations that you will not be considered for release no matter what the circumstances, no matter what the change in the law is," Cahill wrote in his sentencing memorandum.
Mahdi‘s attorneys argued in an appeal that consecutive sentences were "functionally equivalent" to life without release, violating the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Alabama vs. Miller.
Mahdi would be 107 if he gets out of prison.
The Minnesota Supreme Court has twice upheld Mahdi’s conviction.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, whose office prosecuted the case, said the punishment fit the crime.
"This is not one murder, this is three, and for that, it is a rare circumstance which we believe consecutive sentences are warranted," Freeman said.
University of Minnesota Law Professor Perry Moriearty disagrees. She wrote the brief for Mahdi’s appeal.
"We are the only country in the western world that sentences children life without parole. It is a punishment effectively banned across the world, we still do it," she said.
Moriearty, who runs the Child Advocacy and Juvenile Justice Clinic, said multiple studies show the brains of juveniles are not fully developed and their impulse control is greatly diminished.
"I would suggest in Mr. Ali’s case, yes there are multiple victims, but Mahdi Ali was a child at the time. And the (U.S. Supreme) court said children should have a meaningful opportunity for release, a meaningful opportunity to show they have been rehabilitated and they could live on the outside," Moriearty explained.
The Other Juveniles Serving Life
And Mahdi Ali is hardly alone. The FOX 9 Investigators have learned of 27 men in Minnesota’s prisons serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles.
Jerry Vang who was only 14 when he killed two people in a St. Paul drive-by. He recently turned 35.
John McLaughlin, 33, was just a freshman at Roccori High School when he murdered two classmates.
Jason Williams, 44, was 16 when he brutally murdered a young mother, her three-year-old daughter, and critically injured her four-year-old son.
And David Brom was 16 when he killed his parents and two siblings with an ax. Today he’s 49. And from all accounts, he has been a model prisoner.
Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell has spent most of his career in law enforcement trying to put people in prison, but he has become a true believer in rehabilitation, especially for juvenile offenders.
"Many times the people who are the leaders in our correctional facilities - the cultural leaders, the ones who are encouraging people to do their best - are the people who are serving these long sentences," Schnell said.
Mahdi Ali has tried to make a life for himself in prison. He got his GED, earned a para-legal degree, and found God. He sends money to his mother every month.
"I would love for him to have a chance to get justice, and for him to have a second chance in life," said his mother, Sainab Osman
Mahdi Ali said he won’t admit to a crime he did not commit. He’s never changed his story.
"I was labeled a cold-blooded killer," he said through tears. "Someone who didn’t care about what happened. But, I really do pray for them every day."
For Ahmed Warfa, the cousin of the two store clerks killed, the tears have come 11 years too late.
"Not buying it," he said.
The killings shattered three extended families and their tight-knit community.
Today, their absences are marked by missed birthdays and family events. Mohamed Warfa’s daughter recently graduated from high school.
"It hasn’t been an easy journey. It hasn’t been an easy 11 years," his cousin said.