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Judge Criss asked the district attorney about the victim's relatives. "The family has asked that the state address this case in a different manner and that they have their day in court, your honor," Sistrunk replied. "But the state has chosen to proceed with the plea in the interest of justice."
Sistrunk outlined what he called "uncontested" facts. They were almost entirely from the defendant's perspective: Fehmi and Danaj started fighting; Fehmi pulled a gun; Danaj told him to stop but Fehmi refused. "They are one or two feet away from each other, at which time the defendant shoots" Fehmi.
Hearing that, Criss noted that Sistrunk clearly had "a lot of concerns" about the case. "But I'm not sure I understand whether or not you believe the evidence indicates he's guilty of manslaughter or the evidence indicates he did this act in self-defense?"
Sistrunk said he thought the evidence warranted a conviction, just not on a murder charge. "We believe the evidence truly supports a reckless act on the part of the defendant. Nothing less."
He never mentioned that Danaj had fired a second shot. Or that no one heard him try to stop the fight or call for help -- and that, in fact, Fehmi's companion claimed he'd seen Danaj grab Fehmi.
Criss agreed to the sentence recommended by the prosecutor: two years in prison.
By the time the judge inquired if the family wanted to make a statement, it was too late. Lisa Halili was almost reeling when she approached the judge's bench, choking back tears.
"I'm really totally confused," she said. "What I had been told was I could come up here and beg for the mercy of the court. We waited nine years to have our day in court. They told us to let the system work, and it works. But there is evidence here to support a murder charge!"
Judge Criss tried to explain the law over Lisa's sobs. "If the D.A. wants to make an offer," the judge said quietly, "the family cannot override that."
"So what I'm saying is not going to change a single thing?" Lisa cried. "We've lost our day in court?"
Johnny Halili beckoned his wife, his face expressionless. "Lisa, let's go home."
Criss explained, again, that Lisa could tell Danaj how his actions had hurt her family. But that was it.
"What can I say to a murderer except, 'You beat the system!' " Lisa cried. " 'You get to go home!'
"If it's my last dying breath, someone is going to hear me. This is the biggest injustice I have seen in my life." Then she turned to Judge Criss. "It shouldn't be two people's decision -- it should be a jury of 12. I can't live with that. Maybe y'all can live with that, but I can't!"
Johnny Halili stepped toward his wife. "Lisa," he said, "let's go home."
Sistrunk admits that his main goal in the plea bargain was to secure a conviction. That alone, he thought, would be enough to get Danaj deported.
He was wrong. The facts of the case seem to indicate that Danaj should be deported, says Luisa Aquino, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But it would take a conviction on a crime of "moral turpitude" to do so, she explains. Murder fits that legal description; manslaughter does not. "We had to let him go."
Without any immigration orders to hold him, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had no choice but to parole Danaj on March 29, says spokesman Mike Viesca. Thanks to credits for time served and good behavior, it was less than a month after his guilty plea.
He was supposed to report to a halfway house; instead police found him hanging around an elementary school not far from San Leon. His parole was revoked, and he was returned to prison.
By July 9, Danaj will have served his full sentence. The state has no choice but to make him a free man, Viesca says.
Sistrunk says he was unaware of the parole date. Before trial, immigration authorities told his assistant that a manslaughter conviction was enough to deport Danaj, Sistrunk says. Now the immigration agency says it needed twomanslaughter convictions, he says.
" 'Disgusted' is a kind word for how we felt," Sistrunk admits.
After Danaj's sentencing, the usually gregarious Johnny Halili had no desire to talk to people or tend to business. He retreated into a world of regrets, blaming himself for bringing his brother to this country and ultimately his death. "Sometimes I wish I was never here," he admits.
Lisa became an activist. She contacted the U.S. Attorney's Office to see if Danaj could be charged for using an unlicensed firearm. She lobbied her congressman for action and convinced the state attorney general to investigate.
Ultimately, Texas law seemed to provide her best option. The law specifically bars victims' families from appealing a sentence. But a judge is required to ask if a written victim impact statement has been given to the district attorney -- before accepting a plea. If so, the judge is required to ask for a copy of the statement.
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