The man accused of fatally shooting a Queens imam and his friend pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder Thursday as his defense attorney said the imam may have been killed because he wasn’t liked and suggested police may have planted evidence — a claim the New York Police Department (NYPD) denied.
Oscar Morel, 36, was arraigned in Queens Supreme Court on a five-count indictment handed up by a grand jury last week. The indictment includes one count of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder, and two counts of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon in the deaths of Imam Maulana Akonjee and his friend, Thara Uddin.
Morel, who denies the charges, has been held without bail since his first arraignment in Queens Criminal Court on Aug. 16. His attorney, Michael Schwed, asked Justice Gregory L. Lasak to consider granting bail since Morel was not identified in a police lineup.
Lasak rejected the request after Queens Assistant District Attorney Peter Lomp told the court there was “ample corroboration to the defendant's involvement in this case,” including video surveillance, Morel’s own statements, and a .38 caliber Taurus revolver recovered from his home.
The gun and five discharged shell casings were found in a bag, hidden in the wall, Lomp said. A total of five shots were fired at Akonjee and Uddin, he said. The revolver was also “scientifically determined to be the gun used in this murder,” Lomp added.
Around two-dozen members of the Bangladeshi Muslim community in Queens sat in for the hearing, including Akonjee’s son, Saif, and Uddin’s brother, Mashuk. They did not speak with reporters. Also attending were close to 10 of Morel’s family members and friends. They, too, left after the arraignment without talking to media.
The Aug. 13 double slaying 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 at Liberty Avenue and 79 Street in Ozone Park, prosecutors said.
Akonjee and Uddin were taken to a Queens hospital where they were pronounced dead.
Morel's alleged motive still remains a mystery, authorities have said. A hate crime is one possibility being explored. Some in the Queens neighborhood where the men were killed have pointed to what they say are long-standing tensions between Muslims and other ethnic groups as a possible reason for the murders.
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But Schwed raised a different motive, saying he’d heard from sources that it had nothing to do with a hate crime or religion.
“It has to do somewhat with the mosque itself not particularly liking the imam,” Schwed told reporters after the arraignment. “I don’t know if it’s true. That’s why I’m getting an investigator to check it out.”
About 60 feet away from Schwed outside the courthouse, members of the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque, including its president, dismissed claims of political infighting or a power struggle and praised Akonjee.
“I have no idea, I don’t know anything about it,” said Asav Uddin, the mosque president. “He’s a very honest guy.”
Schwed also suggested the police may have planted evidence against Morel after he allegedly rammed his SUV several times into a car belonging to detectives, who were outside his home watching his vehicle the night of Aug. 14. Police have said Morel was attempting to flee.
Schwed told reporters Morel said he saw two people in street clothes running at him with guns and thought he was going to be robbed.
“He tried to get away, shots were fired,” said Schwed, adding he’ll have an investigator examine Morel’s GMC Trailblazer for bullet holes. “Now, I have found nothing about shots being fired in this case. The only thing that enters my mind is that if they did, they may have planted evidence on him.”
NYPD spokesman Lt. John Grimpel denied Schwed’s allegations.
“Police did not fire their weapons that night, and we have not planted evidence against Mr. Morel,” Grimpel told NBC News.
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 an Aug. 15 news conference.
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 his 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.
At Thursday’s arraignment, Assistant District Attorney Crystal Igneri told the court that Morel allegedly said to a detective that night, “I knew you were coming.” Asked about the statement, Schwed replied, “I don’t know that he said that.”
Prosecutors have said video surveillance near the crime scene 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. A witness also identified Morel from a photo array, according to prosecutors.
The judge ordered defense motions to be filed no later than Sept. 15 and for prosecutors to respond no later than Oct. 7. Decisions on the motions will be made Oct. 18.
If convicted, Morel faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.