October 31, 2014

Medina
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We couldn’t understand each other, Somali defendant says of police

MEDINA — A Somali immigrant accused of possessing an African plant containing an illegal stimulant testified Wednesday that police misunderstood him during his interrogation because English is his second language.

Hassan Warsame, 35, of Portland, Maine, is charged with possessing more than 4 pounds of khat, a plant containing a Schedule I controlled substance called cathinone. Because police reported so much found, the charge is a first-degree felony punishable by three to 11 years in prison.

Hassan Warsame, left, a Somali immigrant, testifies with his translator, Ohio State University professor Jibril Mohamed, right. Warsame, who speaks English as a second language, is accused of possessing an African plant containing an illegal stimulant. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY NICK GLUNT)

Khat is legal in Warsame’s home country as well as parts of Africa and the United Kingdom. According to testimony, khat is commonly chewed during Somali celebrations like weddings.

Tuesday and Wednesday, the jury heard from Medina County sheriff’s deputies, Paul Schismenos and Todd Hicks, who interrogated Warsame after his arrest Oct. 31, 2011, following a traffic stop in Guilford Township.

The prosecution presented video recordings of the interrogation, during which Schismenos and Hicks said Warsame told them he knew about the khat, that he could make $20 per “bundle” of the drug and that he had been in Ohio for six days when he was arrested.

Warsame testified that many of the deputies’ allegations were the result of miscommunications because of their language barrier.

“When (the deputy) asks me too many questions, I get confused,” Warsame told the jury on day two of his trial. “I was very nervous and confused. I kept saying, ‘You don’t understand.’ ”

To aid him at trial, Warsame was accompanied by Jibril Mohamed, a translator and Ohio State University professor.

Warsame said he found out there was khat in the car less than an hour before being pulled over, and even then, he only knew about less than an ounce. He said the driver of the car, Abdullahi Handule, told him there were 4 pounds in the trunk as they were being pulled over.

Police reported finding four bundles in the passenger area of the vehicle and 22 bundles in the trunk. A single bundle of khat contains between 20 and 40 individual stems, which are chewed to release the stimulant, police said.

“I would not have come with him if I had known about the drugs,” Warsame said.

He said the driver told him how much the drugs were worth, and that he repeated it to police.

Warsame also said he only had been in Ohio for four days — Thursday to Monday — not six days as police believed. Warsame said the confusion occurred when he mixed up “Tuesday” and “Thursday” during the interrogation.

Warsame’s attorney, David Sheldon, said the miscommunications could have been avoided if police had brought in a translator during the interrogation.

The deputies testified they didn’t think a translator was required because they were able to hold conversations with Warsame.

Witnesses and attorneys had trouble understanding parts of the interrogation because of Warsame’s accent.

“There were clearly some times during the interview that you had trouble communicating,” Sheldon said to one deputy, who agreed.

After his arrest, Warsame said police told him to turn out his pockets, where he had a stem of khat he said he was using as a toothpick. He said he had chewed a stem, too, but only after Handule pressured him.

“I told him it was illegal in the United States, but Handule said, ‘It’s fine,’ ” Warsame told the jury. “He kept saying, ‘Test it. Test it for me.’ ”

During a recess when the jury wasn’t present, Common Pleas Judge James L. Kimbler and the attorneys decided to present the jury with more options than the first-degree felony charge.

At 1 p.m. today, the jury is scheduled to hear the attorneys’ closing arguments before deliberating. If they find Warsame guilty, they also must decide how much khat he possessed, Kimbler said.

The amount will determine the degree of felony — first, second or fourth. Warsame could face a minimum of six months in prison to a maximum of 11 years.

Contact reporter Nick Glunt at (330) 721-4048 or nglunt@medina-gazette.com.