The trial of Christopher Martin, who stood accused of murder last week, was unusual for several reasons. First, the city courthouse lost power. Then, the jurors found out that they would be moving to the nearby bankruptcy court. Ultimately, the jurors met for fewer than three hours before returning a verdict — an unusually brief deliberation for a murder trial. In the end, jurors delivered a 32-year prison sentence after finding the 22-year-old defendant guilty of murdering a taxi driver who offered the defendant a ride home in his personal car.
“I think it was a reasonable sentence given the facts in the case,” said
Commonwealth’s Attorney S. Randolph Sengel. “The jury had to balance the facts in the case with who they perceived the defendant to be.”
In the two-day trial, prosecutors presented evidence that Mustafa Aburanat, 41, was working as a taxi driver for Paramount Cab Co. on the night of the murder. After his lifeless body was discovered in an idling Toyota Camry at a west-end apartment complex, detectives searched through employment records, cell phone recordings and pawnshop receipts to find the murderer. Along the way, they discovered that Aburanat’s taxi was videotaped by the Metro security cameras leaving the Suitland Metro station on March 20 shortly before Aburanat was found dead.
The video footage led them to Christopher Martin, a 2003 graduate of T.C. Williams High School. After detectives obtained a warrant to search his home, they found a gun that forensics experts later testified matched the bullet that was lodged in the right side of Aburanat’s head. Martin pleaded not guilty, although he did not testify during the trial. During closing arguments, Martin's attorney argued that because he was left-handed it was unlikely that he would shoot someone in the right side of the head.
Prosecutors, on the other hand, used security camera footage and ballistic evidence to show that Aburanat was killed with Martin’s gun, a weapon that was retrieved from a lockbox in his possession. The commonwealth’s theory of the case included Aburanat offering Martin a ride home to Virginia, where they both lived.
“The facts are sad,” said Tom Cullen, Martin’s attorney. “But there is no evidence that put my client in Virginia when this crime was committed.”
Cullen asked jurors to consider the lack of evidence presented by prosecutors — the absence of DNA evidence, fingerprints or eyewitness accounts implicating Martin. Ultimately, it was a defense that did not resonate with jurors. They found him guilty and recommended a sentence of 32 years. Circuit Court Judge Donald Haddock is scheduled to formally sentence Martin in December.
Murder Trial Moves Venue
Sometimes it pays to expect the worst. This seems to have been the case this week, when a power outage at the city courthouse lasted longer than workers predicted. Anticipating a potential problem with conducing a two-day murder trial, Circuit Court Judge Donald Haddock called the nearby bankruptcy court to reserve a courtroom in the event that problems with a transformer were not resolved before the second day of Christopher Martin’s murder trial. When he arrived at the city courthouse on the second day of the trial to find that the building was still without power, he decided to move the murder trial to the Martin Bostetter building — which served as a federal courthouse from the 1930s to the 1990s.
“The change of venue was somewhat of a distraction,” said Commonwealth's Attorney S. Randolph Sengel. “But I don’t think you could have planned a smoother transition.”
The bankruptcy court has no holding cells, so the defendant was locked in a conference room. Juries are almost never needed in bankruptcy proceedings, so jurors had the rare opportunity of sitting in the plush leather chairs of a historic jury box that is hardly ever used. When it came time for the jurors to deliberate, they used an adjacent courtroom. Sheriff’s deputies brought the defendant in the same door used by attorneys and jurors. Closing arguments were delivered in the majestic ceremonial courtroom, where former federal Judge Albert Bryan presided over decades of high-profile federal cases. During a break in the trial, Sengel looked around the old courtroom and remembered Bryan’s legendary wit.
“There was one sentencing hearing where the defendant was going on and on about how he had found Jesus and that he was a changed man. He looked at Judge Bryan and said ‘My fate is in the Lord’s hands,’” Sengel recalled. “Well, Judge Bryan leaned forward and said ‘Not entirely.’”