Defense attorney Fred Goetz still fights for Mahdi Hassan Ali, now over sentencing

Fred Goetz
Attorney Fred Goetz has spent nearly two years defending the now-convicted triple-killer Mahdi Ali. He's argued on behalf of his client in front of the Minnesota Supreme Court and twice in state court.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Convicted murderer Mahdi Hassan Ali is expected to receive a sentence of life in prison without parole Monday morning in Hennepin County District Court, after being found guilty of killing three men at the Seward Market in Minneapolis during a failed robbery attempt in 2010.

But Ali's defense attorney, Fred Goetz, is still fighting for him.

From the start, Goetz appeared to be on the wrong side of a losing battle for his teenage client. A few days after the killings, investigators searched Ali's apartment and found a pair of pants stained with the DNA of one of his victims. And Ali's accomplice in the robbery testified against him in the trial.

The shootings gained a lot of media attention; the details of the crimes were particularly gruesome. Ali shot one of his victims at point blank range in the side of the head. He chased another one down and shot him three times in the back. Firefighters were called in to wash away blood that ran out of the store, down the sidewalk and into the storm drain.

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Goetz says he was well aware that the young man he was defending was accused of horrific crimes.

Fred Goetz
Attorney Fred Goetz has spent nearly two years defending the now-convicted triple-killer Mahdi Ali. He's argued on behalf of his client in front of the Minnesota Supreme Court and twice in state court.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

"The harder, the more difficult the case in terms of the reprehensible nature of the crime -- a crime of particular ignominy -- all the more reason you need to have a good criminal defense lawyer stand up," he said recently.

Defending Mahdi Ali is probably the most high-profile case Goetz has taken since graduating from Hamline Law School in 1987, specializing in criminal defense and civil rights law. Now 50 years old, he's a partner in the Minneapolis-based law firm Goetz & Eckland, which he founded in 2002 with Deborah Causey Eckland.

His most recent headline-grabbing case was a civil rights lawsuit on behalf Nicholas Kastner, of Roseville. In December 2008, Kastner was arrested by Minneapolis police after breaking into cars in a downtown parking garage. Video cameras showed Kastner lying on the ground, not resisting arrest, as officers punched and kicked him, and fired a Taser at him. The city settled the suit in 2010 for $75,000 plus attorneys fees.

In the 20 months he has worked on the Seward Market case, Goetz figures he has spent more than 600 hours defending Ali. And while he wouldn't say how much he's charging Ali's family, he says it's considerably less than his normal fee, which he describes as "several hundred dollars" an hour.

"He works hard on behalf of his client. He tries every angle that he has."

He says he doesn't keep a tally of his wins and losses, because sometimes a win is not so easy to define - especially when he's defending someone accused of a crime: "A win might be getting a reduced sentence. Sometimes a win might be getting some early, favorable rulings on constitutional issues."

That's the strategy Goetz followed in his defense of Mahdi Ali. Earlier this year, he went in front of the Minnesota Supreme Court to try to get Ali's trial moved to juvenile court.

Goetz argued that Ali's constitutional rights could be violated if he were tried as an adult. Had he won, Ali might have been tried in juvenile court and convicted of murder, and he would not be facing life in prison without parole, which he is now. But the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled against the appeal.

The appeal delayed the start of the murder trial by several months. From the outside, it may have looked like a delay tactic from a desperate defense lawyer, but not to Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. His office prosecuted the case against Ali. Freeman calls Goetz a "straight shooter."

Mahdi Hassan Ali
This undated image provided by the Hennepin County Sheriff shows Mahdi Hassan Ali, who along with another teenager was charged with three counts of murder in the Jan. 6 killings at Seward Market and Halal Meat. The teens were charged as adults. They are not related.
AP Photo/Hennepin County Sheriff

"He works hard on behalf of his client. He tries every angle that he has, in terms of every possible defense, just like he did with the age in the Seward Market homicide. That was something he should try, and he did. And he does it professionally," said Freeman. "That's been his reputation and he sure showed it in this one."

During the trial, Goetz set aside the age question and argued that Ali was not the gunman. Now Goetz has shifted his defense from trying to keep Ali out of prison to keeping Ali out of prison for his entire life. Goetz has requested a jury trial to settle the question of Ali's age. He contends that Ali was 15 years old on the night of the murders, and that it would be cruel and unusual punishment to send someone that young to prison for the rest of his life.

If Goetz's efforts fail to get Ali a chance for parole, Ali will not be the only teenage murderer who will never leave prison.

In 1988, David Brom was 16 years old when he killed four family members with an axe. He received four life sentences and technically is eligible for parole when he's 70 years old.

Goetz also believes the Brom sentence was also cruel and unusual. A father of two small children, he says teenagers don't possess the emotional and mental development of adults.

"This is part of the problem of sending teenagers to prison for life without release in the case of crimes that might be horrific. I don't know that they get it," Goetz said. "Now, does that mean they should not suffer a significant punishment if they commit the crime? No."

Goetz says that if he needs to with Mahdi Ali, he'll take his argument to the Minnesota Supreme Court once again.