April 19, 2014

Medina
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Somali immigrant convicted of possessing khat

MEDINA — A Somali immigrant was found guilty of possessing an illegal stimulant found in a plant native to his home country Thursday, but his attorney still considered it a win.

Hassan Warsame, 35, of Portland, Maine, had been charged with first-degree felony possession of khat, an African plant that contains cathinone, a Schedule I controlled substance.

Somali immigrant Hassan Warsame, left, reacts to the jury’s decision to find him guilty on a reduced charge of possessing an African plant called khat, which contains a Schedule I controlled substance. Jibril Mohamed, right, is Warsame’s translator. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY NICK GLUNT)

Warsame was accused of possessing 4 pounds of khat after police found the plant inside a car during a traffic stop in Guilford Township on Oct. 31, 2011.

But after a three-day trial and deliberating less than an hour, the jury decided to find Warsame guilty on a reduced fourth-degree felony charge because they believed he possessed a fraction of the 4 pounds.

Warsame’s attorney, David Sheldon, said he was satisfied with the verdict.

“I think the jury knows who the bad guy is,” Sheldon said, referring to the man Warsame said the drugs really belonged to. “He was facing three to 11 years in prison, and now he’s only facing six to 18 months.

“I think you made the right choice to go to trial,” he told his client.

“I’m very happy,” Warsame said, smiling wide. “The jury is nice people.”

He was the front-seat passenger in the vehicle, which was driven by his friend, Abdullahi Handule, 38, also of Portland, who had a warrant issued for his arrest after he failed to appear at his own trial last month.

During Warsame’s trial, Sheldon blamed the drugs on Handule.

Common Pleas Judge James L. Kimbler told members of the jury that if they found Warsame guilty, they also needed to decide how much khat Warsame possessed.

According to testimony Tuesday and Wednesday, police found about 8 ounces of khat in the passenger area of the vehicle and just less than 4 pounds in the trunk.

Warsame told the jury through a translator that his friend was transporting the drugs and that he didn’t know about them until minutes before police pulled the car over. Police reported finding khat residue on both men’s shirts, which they saw as probable cause to search the vehicle.

During testimony Wednesday, Warsame admitted to chewing a piece of khat and using another piece as a toothpick.

Having more than 3 pounds of khat is a first-degree felony, between 5 ounces and 3 pounds is a second-degree felony, between 1 and 5 ounces is a third-degree felony, and less than an ounce is a fourth-degree felony.

“I concede that my client possessed khat,” Sheldon told the jury during closing arguments. “But he possessed less than (an ounce). If you find him guilty, find him guilty of that and nothing more.”

Sheldon said another big issue was a series of miscommunications between police and Warsame during his interrogation after his arrest.

Because Warsame speaks English as a second language, parts of the interrogation — a recording of which was played for the jury — are hard to understand, Sheldon said.

County Assistant Prosecutor Michael McNamara said during closing arguments there were too many inconsistencies in the testimonies to believe Warsame wasn’t involved.

He pointed out that Warsame kept changing his story about how much khat was in the car, and questioned that Warsame discovered the khat’s existence only minutes before being caught.

“That’s because he knew what was in the trunk,” McNamara told the jury. “Think about these inconsistencies.”

Jurors declined to comment Thursday.

Warsame’s sentencing is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Feb. 28.

The judge decided not to revoke Warsame’s bond, but warned him that he would cost $18,000 in bond money if he fled.

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