While his classmates were celebrating their graduation from the University of Maryland last Friday, Omar Oweiss, 22, sat in a packed courtroom to see his father sentenced for the murder of his mother.
Zakaria Oweiss, 58, a Potomac physician, murdered his wife Marianne Oweiss, 49, on Aug. 15, 2001. Evidence presented at the trial showed that he hit her head with a rubber mallet at least seven times in the basement of their Kentsdale Drive home. She was unconscious in seconds, dead in minutes, the medical examiner said during Oweiss' trial in March.
Zakaria Oweiss' defense strategy was to blame his oldest son Omar, who police said was never a suspect in the case. A jury convicted Zakaria Oweiss of second degree murder on March 14, 2003.
Last Friday, May 23, Circuit Court Judge Michael S. Pincus sentenced Zakaria Oweiss to 30 years in prison, the maximum penalty possible under Maryland law.
“I agree, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant intended to kill his wife. He lay in wait and he killed his wife in a particularly violent and brutal way,” Pincus said. He went on to call Oweiss’ conduct, “vicious and heinous,” in explaining the reasons for exceeding the state's sentencing guidelines of 12-20 years.
APPROXIMATELY 20 PEOPLE spoke last Friday and many more sent letters on Oweiss’ behalf, asking Pincus to be merciful in sentencing the Potomac gynecologist.
Following their testimony, Omar Oweiss was the one and only person to speak on behalf of Marianne Oweiss, a Potomac real estate agent.
“My mother has been forgotten in all of this,” he said.
Omar awoke the morning of Aug. 15, 2001 to the sound of his mother's screams for help. After racing downstairs to find her dead in a "pool of blood," Omar found his father pacing in the driveway with a rubber mallet in his hand.
Omar, who was a key prosecution witness, has been shunned by the rest of his father's family, including his father, brother, aunts and uncles.
He said he needed to speak at the hearing — that both his mother and father had taught him to “do the right thing at all costs, even if it means you have to stand alone."
When Omar spoke, he seemed to speak to others in the courtroom, as much as the judge.
“The denial and hypocrisy that some people have chosen to believe in is disgusting,” he said. “I am not isolating myself, I have been isolated.”
Omar paused several times to breathe, take a drink and choke back tears. His extended family, which filled the courtroom, showed no emotion as they listened.
“I have no recommendation for my father, who I love,” Omar Oweiss said.
OMAR'S YOUNGER BROTHER Amin Oweiss, 19, was the first to speak at the sentencing hearing.
“It’s unfair to let him go to jail for the rest of his life,” said Amin Oweiss, 19.
Zakaria Oweiss’ brother, sister, in-laws, nieces and nephews, friends and former patients soliloquized that the man they knew was a kind, gentle person. They touched on his past service to the community, on how badly he is needed by his son Amin, and on his poor health.
“Everything you’ve heard today is true,” Omar Oweiss said. “He’s been a wonderful father.”
ZAKARIA OWEISS SOBBED repeatedly throughout the testimony. Those who came to speak on his behalf were visibly shaken and holding in tears of their own.
“He’s a walking dead man. The only thing we can do for him is to give him hope one day he can be a father again,” said Celine Oweiss, his sister-in-law.
Oweiss’ attorney, Peter Davis, spoke at length about Oweiss and about the defense assertion that Omar Oweiss had killed his mother.
On the day of the murder, Oweiss was found with Marianne Oweiss’ blood splattered on his clothes, glasses and wedding ring. Police said that Omar Oweiss was never a suspect in the case.
Prosecutors called defense attempts to blame Oweiss’s own son for the murder “reprehensible.”
“That defense would not have been put forward unless it was a valid, ethical defense,” Davis said. “There are no bad defenses. There are no outrageous defenses.”
“WE'RE NOT HERE because Zakaria Oweiss is a bad man. We are here because he murdered his wife,” Deputy State's Attorney Katherine Winfree said.
“You can imagine the sound of that, the feel of the blood … and yet he continued to beat his wife,” Winfree said.
Winfree read into the record a letter which had been sent by Marianne Oweiss’ family in Germany. The letter raised issues about a history of previous violence, which had not been admissible at the trial, but could be discussed at sentencing.
Winfree also attacked the Oweiss family’s treatment of Omar. “The things they have said to him, the things they have done to him are unconscionable,” Winfree said.
She recommended the maximum penalty allowed under Maryland law. “He deserves every minute of those 30 years” Winfree said.
FOR THE FIRST TIME, Zakaria Muhammad Oweiss spoke about the case publicly since the murder 21 months ago. He stood to address the courtroom, wearing a pinstriped suit and a gold band on his right ring finger.
Oweiss first thanked everyone who had come to speak on his behalf. He then asserted his innocence.
“I am reaffirming that I did not kill my wife,” Oweiss said.
“I am a dead man walking,” Oweiss said, speaking of the loss of his wife. “We are both six feet under, but I am with a pulsating heart.”
Oweiss then approached the bench brandishing a copy of the Koran. “I swear to God I never told my children to lie,” Oweiss said standing near the witness box.
He also called upon the judge’s compassion and saying that it is not for himself that the judge should be lenient. “I am a father. I am a parent. I am a giver. All my life I was a giver,” Oweiss said.
Pincus explained the appeal process to him.
OWEISS WAS SHEPHERDED out of the courtroom, as most of his family stepped into the lobby to discuss their disappointment with the sentence.
Only one of Oweiss’ relatives remained.
Omar Oweiss stayed in the courtroom for a moment sitting among police and prosecutors on his graduation day. He quietly wept.
— Ken Moore contributed to this story.