After nearly two years of prolonged, frequently delayed court proceedings, Bashir Omar, a Garden City man charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with a fatal 2017 motorcycle crash, was sentenced Tuesday afternoon to four years in prison.
The sentence will include the 634 days Omar has spent in jail throughout the court proceedings, meaning he is sentenced to 27 more months, or two years and three months, in custody.
Omar, a Somali immigrant in his early 30s, entered into a plea agreement with prosecutors on April 30, pleading no contest to involuntary manslaughter, attempted failure to stop and remain at a scene of an accident resulting in death and criminal damage to property. He had formerly been charged with second-degree murder, reckless driving and driving under the influence in the death of 67-year-old Robert Becker, of Garden City. Evidence later showed that he was not intoxicated during the accident.
The length of the case, constantly pushed back for several reasons, including the search for Somali interpreters, has been a “real embarrassment,” Chief District Judge Robert Frederick said prior to sentencing, but extenuating circumstances meant the court nor the lawyers could move any faster.
“This has truly been one of the most difficult cases I’ve even been involved in,” Frederick said at the hearing.
Omar appeared Tuesday with his attorney, Luci Douglass, and Somali interpreter Sirad Farah. Assistant Finney County Attorneys Kristi Cott and Brian Sherwood represented the state. The small courtroom’s gallery was full with the friends and family of Omar and Becker.
Both Cott and Douglass presented evidence to Frederick, the state focusing on the accident itself and Douglass on Omar’s personal history and mental health.
Garden City police officer Michael Kerley presented the incident’s accident report to the judge, reviewing the police analysis of the scene of the crime.
Cott told Frederick in April that Omar and Becker were traveling southbound in the 2400 block of Fleming Street, near Kenneth Henderson Middle School, when Omar’s Jeep collided with Becker’s motorcycle from behind. Omar’s vehicle continued forward, colliding again with Becker and the toppled motorcycle and pushing them over a curb and across the sidewalk and a nearby yard, driveway and more grass.
As Omar drove back onto Fleming Street, Becker’s body, until then still attached to the Jeep, became dislodged from the vehicle as Omar turned in a circle, again coming to rest over Becker. Omar backed up and drove forward, driving over Becker for a final time, Cott said in April.
On Tuesday, Cott called eyewitness Jose Quazada to the stand to present a cellphone video he took of the last portion of the accident, showing the Jeep pulling forward back onto Fleming Street after driving over Becker.
After analyzing skid marks and speed scuffs at the accident scene, Kerley said he determined that Omar did not hit the brake throughout the accident. A car traveling at 35 mph could stop within about 54 feet, Kerley said Tuesday, but the accident scene was the length of a football field.
Omar was going 35 mph when he struck Becker and was going 39 mph at the end of the accident, indicating that he did not stop accelerating, even as the vehicle pushed Becker and a heavy motorcycle, Cott said in her closing statements.
Kerley said the GCPD inspected Omar’s Jeep and Becker’s motorcycle and found no signs of mechanical malfunctions with either vehicle that would have contributed to the accident.
After Kerley’s testimony, GCPD officer Tiffany McDermott took the stand to review an incident she responded to in 2016, when Omar mistook the accelerator for the break of his Jeep when attempting to park, causing him to collide into the side of an apartment building. The wall on the side of the building caved in, McDermott said.
Douglass called several of Omar’s family members to the stand, as well as Compass Behavioral Health regional director Megan Garcia.
Before coming to Garden City, Omar sought mental health treatment at Community-University Health Care Center in Minneapolis, where he was prescribed medication. When Omar was sent to Compass after the accident, the agency prescribed the same medication, which to her knowledge he was still taking, Garcia said.
Garcia said Omar was diagnosed — though not by her — with schizophrenia and after a consultation she deemed him fit to stand trial. When Douglass asked whether Omar would benefit from treatment given in his own language of Somali and from living in a “vibrant” Somali community, Garcia agreed.
When Cott asked whether someone with schizophrenia is capable of driving safely, Garcia said it depends on the patient and their symptoms.
Testimonies from several of Omar’s relatives — including his brother, Abdiwali Omar, who lives in Garden City, and uncles, Hasan Omar and Mahamud Farah, who live in Minneapolis — helped paint a picture of what Omar went through before he reached Garden City. Abdiwali and Hassan Omar testified through interpreter Sirad Farah.
Bashir and Abdiwali Omar were born in Somalia, but were displaced, ultimately being sent to a refugee camp in Uganda. Up until that point, Bashir Omar had been healthy, Abdiwali said, and Douglass reiterated later. But, after he contracted malaria at the camp, he began struggling with mental health problems. He was eventually allowed to move to Colorado, where his mental health worsened, and he moved to be closer to family in Minneapolis, Douglass said.
When Bashir Omar arrived in Minneapolis, he was in “bad shape” mentally, said Mahamud Farah, who is roughly Omar’s age. He began going to Community-University, where he saw a social worker that spoke Somali, as well as a psychiatrist and doctor. He did not drive, instead using public transit, Mahamud Farah confirmed.
Hassan Omar, who is older than Bashir and said he is like a son, said Bashir cooperated with and responded positively to the treatment at Community-University. He saw improvement to Bashir’s well-being, he said. When Bashir planned to move to Garden City for work, Mahamud Farah said he felt like Bashir was well enough to make the move.
After the move, Bashir Omar lived with Abdiwali and was doing well when he first got to town, Douglass said. He got a job at Tyson and, after three failed attempts, received his driver’s license.
But later, away from Community-University, that stable condition began to shake. He lost his job at Tyson due to mental health problems, Douglass said. Abdiwali Omar said he noticed his brother becoming moody and did not interact with others like he used to. He was planning to move back to Minneapolis to continue treatment at Community-University, but the accident happened before he had enough money to move. Douglass said by the day of the accident, he had not slept for several days.
The defense was not trying to downplay the effects of the accident, Douglass said in her closing statement. She was asking the court to put the incident in “proper context.”
In her closing statement, Douglass referenced a statement Bashir Omar had made in an interpreted interview with police after the accident: that the incident was the “will of God,” a statement she said was “seized upon” by the media. The Telegram has referred to the statement in many reports, referencing the police affidavit.
Bashir is culturally Muslim but does not practice the religion, nor is he a “religious fanatic,” Douglass said. He comes from a deterministic heritage that believes God can control what happens, she said. She said Americans and Christians have similar idioms. With the statement, Bashir was not saying he intended to harm Becker in the accident, she said. The tragedy, she said, was the result of poor driving skills alone.
Cott ultimately asked for the maximum sentence for all three counts and said the state was opposed to probation. Omar shouldn’t have been driving, she said. She said it was disturbing that he did not break throughout the accident.
Douglass offered several requests, asking for probation ahead of a prison sentence. She asked that Omar be able to potentially carry out that probation in Minneapolis via an interstate compact. There, he would live under the care and supervision of his family in Minneapolis as he continued to receive treatment from the Community-University Health Care Center. He could treat the issues that led to the accident.
When it came time for Omar to carry out his prison sentence, Douglass requested a standard sentence for the manslaughter and criminal damage to property charges and a mitigated sentence for the attempted failure to stop charge.
Before closing statements, Becker’s daughter, Bretta Heinitz, and son-in-law, Timothy Allen, offered impact statements.
Heinitz, opening by saying she hoped Omar finds the help he needs, looked back on who her father was through her eyes: loving and kind and selfless. He made an effort to go to the funerals of fellow veterans and welcomed a homeless man into his home after the death of his wife, Heinitz’s mother. She said she wondered what he felt during the accident — if he felt pain or fear or even realized what was happening. Before Douglass’ closing statements, she referenced the “will of God” statement, asking why Becker’s death was Omar’s “decision.” The accident had left lasting pain on her and her family — her sisters and daughter still fear driving. Heinitz said she will forgive Omar in the future, but that no sentence would be enough, she said.
“Take a good look at our three girls’ faces,” Heinitz said, referencing her and her sisters.” Study them. Remember them. And know there are hundreds of other faces behind ours, all of whom loved a man who had his flaws like every other person, but had a good heart … I hope you carry the guilt with you and you never forget our faces, for we will never forget yours.”
Allen said he also struggles with mental illness and would want the maximum sentence were he to stand trial.
Omar also offered a statement, translated by Sirad Farah. He said he was saddened by the death of Becker, who he understood to be a good man. He asked for forgiveness from the family and said he “prayed for the victim.”
Frederick ultimately denied Douglass’ request to send Omar to Minneapolis, saying he did not know the extent of what he was being asked to do. He sentenced Omar to 34 months in prison for manslaughter, eight months for attempted failure to stop and six months for criminal damage to property, to be carried out consecutively for a total of 48 months. He will receive credit for time already spent in jail and serve at least two years of parole after being released.
Douglass said in an email Wednesday she was not yet sure whether her and Omar will consider filing an appeal to the decision.
Becker’s present family members declined to comment.
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.