The Last Word

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

While Criss inquired about the family's feelings, she never asked about the statement in court. Nor did Sistrunk provide one. The judge says she asked the D.A. about a statement in her chambers but was told the family hadn't written one.

In fact, the Halilis say they didn't receive the forms for a statement until after the sentencing. Their attorney had written Sistrunk three months before sentencing, saying they wanted to "exercise all rights" available to them. They never got information about a written statement.

Amy Wright, executive director of the Women's Advocacy Project in Austin, says a victim or close relatives have the right to be informed about the statements. And they have the right for their statements to be considered by the prosecutor and judge prior to accepting a plea bargain. "It's dead on. This is not something that's subject to debate."

Young and good-looking, Fehmi Halili was a hit with 
Daniel Kramer
Young and good-looking, Fehmi Halili was a hit with customers.
Fehmi's car stopped abruptly in a ditch after he was 
Fehmi's car stopped abruptly in a ditch after he was shot.

Records show that one of the Halili brothers was given the forms in 1996, Sistrunk says. But he admits there is no record of anyone broaching the matter in the eight years that followed, until March 4, 2004 -- three days after the sentencing.

"It was an assumption on my part that things existed, and they didn't," Sistrunk says. "In haste, the plea agreement was done without them submitting it. We followed up as soon as we could."

That wasn't enough for Lisa. She persuaded Houston attorney Rick Martini, Prestige's maritime lawyer, to appeal the sentence. Without a victim impact statement, she argued, the sentence was illegal.

In May, the National Crime Victims Law Institute in Portland agreed to assist Martini's efforts. Institute attorney Kim Montagriff says that if the impact statement law wasn't followed, Danaj's punishment could be overturned and a new sentencing ordered.

"Granted, nothing may change," Montagriff says. "But the victim is entitled to at least have the proper procedure followed."

With the institute's help, Martini filed a brief making a case for a new sentencing. To the surprise of everyone, except Lisa Halili, Judge Criss set an early-July hearing to listen to the lawyer's arguments and hear Sistrunk's rebuttal. Lisa hired a former Harris County prosecutor, Chuck Stanfield, to argue the family's case.

The possibilities thrilled victims' advocates.

Dianne Clements, executive director of Justice For All in Houston, knows of no case where a judge has overturned sentencing because impact statement laws weren't followed. She was thrilled when Judge Criss agreed to hear arguments on the issue because it could set a precedent, Clements says. "If nothing else, I guarantee the D.A. will make sure from now on that they've given the victim a chance to make a statement. And the judge will never accept a plea without finding out if he's done that."

Criss admitted that she's never heard of a judge conducting a sentencing hearing a second time because of a missing victim's impact statement. She knows what the Halilis really want is a different sentence, one that would keep Danaj in prison.

"I don't think what they want is allowed," she said. "But I've given them the opportunity to show me that it is."

Lisa and Johnny Halili knew the hearing was their last chance. They needed to believe that, however remote, there was the possibility of a new, tougher sentence.

But last Thursday, one day before the scheduled July 2 hearing, their anticipation collapsed into bitterness. That afternoon, Sistrunk played his legal ace. Because the family had also appealed to the state's 14th Court of Appeals, he argued, Criss had no jurisdiction over their complaint. He asked that appellate court for an emergency order to stop the hearing.

The court agreed.

The Halilis were stunned. Without the hearing, Danaj would be released from jail in one week.

Stanfield says he's searching for a way to intervene before then. The law is tricky, he says: Texas clearly provides victims with certain rights, but it doesn't spell out how to remedy violations of the law. "We're trying to address that issue," he says. "We do have some ideas."

The Halilis' quest looks ever more desperate. They're not just battling Danaj; despite Sistrunk's admission that he messed up, the district attorney's office has shown itself willing to fight. And time is on his side.

Danaj has already been released so many times. On the day of the shooting. A week later, when he was in Maryland, intent on fleeing the country. Finally, almost a decade later, when he was paroled instead of deported after less than two years in prison.

This week, despite the best efforts of the Halili family, he's set to be released one more time. And this time, barring a miracle for the Halilis, he'll walk free for good.

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