The Last Word

They've fought for justice for nine years, but time is running out

Under questioning, Danaj claimed the Halilis were chasing him. He said he was planning to flee to Greece.

Maryland deputies were concerned enough to call Galveston. But the deputies manning the Galveston office didn't seem to know what to do. They knew Danaj had been instructed to contact investigators for another interview. But Danaj told the Maryland deputies that he'd return to Galveston County when called; he just wanted to go to Greece first.

(Galveston County Sheriff Gean Leonard did not return repeated calls for comment.)

Deputies photographed Haki Danaj on the day of the 
Deputies photographed Haki Danaj on the day of the killing.
Johnny Halili says that life seemed to stop when 
Fehmi (right) was killed.
Johnny Halili says that life seemed to stop when Fehmi (right) was killed.

The deputies were stymied. So they called Assistant District Attorney Susan Criss, according to their report. She checked the database and said no charges were pending against Danaj; he was free to go.

The deputies reminded Danaj to phone them on Monday. He assured them that he would.

When Monday came, Danaj didn't call. When the grand jury issued its summons, he didn't answer. Instead, Danaj did just as he'd said.

He fled the country.

Fehmi Halili's father accompanied his son's body on its final trip back to their native land. The elder Halili had arrived in Texas a few years before Fehmi, intent on becoming a U.S. citizen. After his youngest son was killed, the man seemed to crumble. "I just want to take my boy home," he said. He left that summer to bury Fehmi in Kosovo; since then, he's returned to the States only for brief visits. "He just couldn't believe what had happened," Lisa says.

Meanwhile, Johnny and Lisa continued to push the district attorney for action. In 1996, 15 months after the shooting, the grand jury returned a murder indictment. The sheriff finally issued a warrant for Danaj's arrest.

No one expected Danaj to turn himself in. But in 2002, seven years and three months after killing Fehmi, Danaj arrived at Newark's Liberty International Airport. He was promptly arrested and transferred to Galveston County, where trial was set for March 2004.

However, District Attorney Kurt Sistrunk had another trial to attend to first: that of cross-dressing real estate heir Robert Durst. In a case that attracted national attention, Durst was accused of shooting his neighbor, chopping up the body and dumping the remains in Galveston Bay.

Sistrunk had been a prosecutor for 13 years, but he'd just been elected district attorney in January 2003. He decided to try the Durst case personally, squaring off against three of Houston's top defense attorneys.

While Durst admitted to the shooting and dismembering, his lawyers argued that it didn't matter because Durst had fired in self-defense. The jurors agreed, and Durst was acquitted.

National media commentators criticized Sistrunk for failing to give jurors the option to convict on a lesser charge, such as manslaughter. ABC legal analyst Cynthia McFadden noted, "The prosecution had plenty of time to come up with a consistent story. I don't think they did."

Four months later, Sistrunk was set to try the Danaj case. "I got the same judge, the same courtroom and the same district attorney," says Lisa Halili. "And he gets cold feet on me."

On the Friday before the trial was to start, Sistrunk called Lisa. He explained that he'd struck a deal with Danaj's court-appointed attorney, Winifred Webber. Danaj would plead guilty -- to a misdemeanor. (Webber did not return repeated calls for comment.)

"A misdemeanor?" Lisa was stunned. "You're going to put a murderer on the street?" Sistrunk assured her that the conviction would be enough to get Danaj deported. Lisa angrily told him it wasn't enough for the family.

Sistrunk called back later that day to tell her the deal had been toughened; Danaj would plead guilty to manslaughter, meaning he'd admit to "recklessly" causing Halili's death. Lisa begged him to go to trial on the charge of murder, which required showing he'd "intentionally or knowingly" killed her brother-in-law. "We were on the phone for three hours with me trying to build his confidence," she says.

On the following Monday, a pack of Halilis and their supporters showed up in court. They waited all morning, then while the group was having lunch, Sistrunk called Lisa's cell phone. He told her to get back to the courthouse. The deal was set: Haki would plead guilty to manslaughter. A second-degree felony, manslaughter can carry up to 20 years in prison. But Sistrunk had agreed to recommend the minimum term, two years.

If the judge signed off on the deal, Danaj had enough credit for time served to ensure he'd be a free man by summer.

Sistrunk had told Lisa she'd get to make a victim impact statement in court. She knew it was her last chance; she prayed it would be enough to convince the judge to reject the deal.

Susan Criss had come a long way since that phone call from Maryland authorities in 1995, when as an assistant district attorney she'd given the okay for Danaj's release. Now she was the state district judge presiding in his murder case.

Under questioning from Sistrunk in court, Danaj said he knew he could face up to 20 years in prison by pleading guilty to manslaughter. He knew he could be deported, too.

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