The new attorney for a New York man accused of fatally shooting a Queens imam and his friend said Monday his client knew nothing about the gun police recovered from his home and said he seemed “honest and sincere” when he told him he didn’t commit the murders.
Defense attorney Michael Schwed spoke with reporters about his conversation with Oscar Morel, 36, outside Queens Supreme Court after prosecutors presented a grand jury indictment to Justice Dorothy Chin Brandt in the deaths of Imam Maulana Akonjee and his friend, Thara Uddin.
Morel, who didn’t attend Monday’s hearing, has been charged with one count of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder, and two counts of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon. He is being held without bail.
Morel, who had been a porter at The New School since 2013 according to the university, has said he wasn’t the shooter. Asked if he believed Morel, Schwed said, “He seems honest and sincere when he says it.”
Morel’s family left the courthouse after the morning hearing, declining to speak with reporters. Akonjee’s son, Saif, and Uddin’s brother, Mashuk, were also present along with about two-dozen family supporters. They gathered on the sidewalk outside the courthouse, holding signs calling for justice, as several New York Police Department (NYPD) officers stood watch.
Saif Akonjee and Mashuk Uddin later left without speaking to the media.
The Aug. 13 double killing of Akonjee, 55, and Uddin, 64, has sent shockwaves through the city’s Bangladeshi and Muslim communities, whose members have been calling for Queens District Attorney Richard Brown to file hate-crime charges.
Both men, dressed in religious garb, left the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque at around 1:50 p.m when Morel allegedly approached them on foot from behind, fired shots from a handgun into their heads, and sprinted away from the scene, prosecutors said.
Akonjee and Uddin were taken to a Queens hospital where they were pronounced dead.
Morel’s motive remains a mystery, authorities have said. A hate crime is one possibility being explored. Some in the Ozone Park neighborhood where the men were killed have pointed to what they say are long-standing tensions between Muslims and other ethnicities as a possible reason for the murders.
At Morel’s arraignment in Queens Criminal Court last week, prosecutors said the NYPD ballistics lab linked a .38 caliber Taurus revolver recovered from Morel’s basement apartment to the gun used in the shooting.
But Schwed, who said he’s spoken to Morel just once, told reporters Morel said he didn’t know anything about the gun.
“He said he heard in the precinct after they arrested him, he heard one cop say to the other the gun was found in a wall outside of the house,” Schwed said. “So he has no idea why that was there.”
NBC New York reported last week that the revolver was discovered hidden in the apartment wall, behind drywall and screws.
Prosecutors have said video surveillance near the crime scene also captured Morel allegedly emerging from his black GMC Trailblazer, walking and running to where Akonjee and Uddin were shot, and running back to his car before leaving.
During questioning by detectives, Morel allegedly admitted he was the person seen in one of the still photographs taken from video, prosecutors said.
Schwed said Morel told him he rode past the area where the shooting occurred sometime between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. that day to take a friend to the doctor. Akonjee and Uddin were killed shortly before 2 p.m., police said.
“And that’s all he remembers about being in that area,” Schwed said. “Never was on foot, he said.”
Asked where Morel was at the time of the shooting, Schwed replied, “I didn’t ask him about that.”
Prosecutors said at Morel’s arraignment last week that a witness identified Morel from a photo array. But according to Reuters, they also acknowledged in court Thursday that a witness picked out someone other than Morel from a police lineup.
It wasn’t immediately clear if the witness in the photo array and the lineup was the same person.
Schwed also took issue with a sketch of the shooter, saying it showed a man with glasses, but that Morel doesn’t own a pair. “He wears contacts, but he’s never worn glasses for years, for over 10 years,” Schwed said.
Prosecutors at last week’s arraignment said, however, that Morel told detectives he wears glasses.
Investigators developed a strong lead in the shootings following an unrelated hit-and-run of a bicyclist in Brooklyn 10 minutes after the double murder, NYPD Police Commissioner William Bratton said at a news conference last Monday.
On surveillance video, detectives identified a black GMC Trailblazer fleeing the scene of the shooting in a "quick fashion" and also identified the person running into the vehicle, NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said at the same news conference.
Detectives then searched a police database for that car and came up with a hit-and-run that occurred one mile away at around 2 p.m., according to Boyce and prosecutors. Video pulled from that street corner revealed that the two cars were identical, Boyce said.
Officers found the car near where the hit-and-run took place and kept watch over it until around 10 p.m. Aug. 14, when Morel emerged and got into the SUV, Boyce said.
"Detectives from the fugitive task force approached the car and then he rammed the detectives' car several times in an effort to get away," Boyce said.
Schwed, however, offered a different version of events.
“[Morel] told me, people with guns came running at him,” Schwed said. “So I guess the cops were not in uniform. He got scared and tried to drive away because he thought he was going to be robbed...and they fired shots at his car, which I will try to verify.”
The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Schwed’s claim.
Morel is due back in court on Sept. 1, when he will be arraigned on the five-count indictment and enter a plea. If convicted, he faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.