Throughout a week-long trial, everyone in Courtroom 707 of Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center agreed on one thing: Khusen Akhmedov’s reckless driving on Roosevelt Boulevard caused the deaths of Samara Banks and her three young sons Saa’mir, Saa’sean and Saa’deem.
But what Common Pleas Court Judge Steven Geroff had to decide Monday was whether the actions of a speeding driver who fatally struck the four in July 2013 qualified as malice necessary for a third-degree murder conviction.
Around 3 p.m. Monday, he told a packed courtroom that they did, convicting the 27-year-old former emergency medical technician of four counts, among other offenses.
With sentencing scheduled for Oct. 1, Akhmedov could face up to 160 years in prison, but Assistant District Attorney Thomas Lipscomb said he would likely seek a sentence in the 20-to-40-year range.
“He showed no respect for human life. All of this happened because he didn’t want to lose that race,” said Banks’ grandmother Janice Lawson, who was among nearly 20 supporters of the victims on hand for the verdict. “We’re glad it’s over. He really hurt our hearts.”
Banks and her sons were crossing Roosevelt Boulevard mid-block when they were struck by Akhmedov’s silver 2012 Audi S4.
The driver with whom Akhmedov was allegedly racing at the time, Ahmen Holloman, pleaded guilty to four counts of vehicular homicide and faces up to 10 years in prison.
Both vehicles remained at the scene and surveillance footage from a nearby business shows the driver walking back to where some of the bodies lay on the ground.
While he told investigators he was driving “maybe 55 [mph],” accident-reconstruction investigators estimated his speed at 79 miles per hour.
“He regarded [the boulevard] as his personal speedway,” Geroff said in rendering his verdict in a non-jury trial.
Tears flowed in a courtroom packed with supporters of both the deceased and the defendant, but tensions rose from one side in the hallway afterwards.
Among the raised-voice comments made by Akhmedov supporters was “it was a tragic accident” and “Is everybody happy?”
A man who identified himself as Akhmedov’s father Azim said that “everybody is speeding” on Roosevelt Boulevard and that his son is a “good boy who didn’t purposely kill anybody.”
After sheriff’s deputies made sure the defendant’s family and friends had left the building, Banks’ family got clearance to exit.
“Nobody wins here,” said Marie Banks, Samara’s paternal grandmother, moments before the mangled squeakly stroller from that night was wheeled down the hallway.
Said Lipscomb of a case he called one of the toughest he’s tried, “At the end of the day, you still have to assess a case on the facts and evidence. It’s not all about emotion, but this is a very serious case.”
Saa’yon Griffin, Banks’ fourth son, survived since he’d just reached the median before the fatal collision. He was five years old at the time.
Before leaving, a relative noted that “he’s doing OK, but he misses his mom and brothers.”
More emotional testimony
Picking up with the emotional nature of last week’s proceedings, Lipscomb called Banks’ aunt Latonya Byrd as his final witness on Monday morning.
Byrd spoke about getting a call at home that night indicating that “Samara and the boys are dead in the street.” She and her husband rushed to the scene near 2nd Street and the Boulevard when Byrd jumped out of the car.
“I just ran two or three blocks before I got there,” she testified. “Samara was laying in the street. We were trying to get to her, but police said we wouldn’t want to see her like that.”
Her attention then turned to the children, since she noticed people searching the area but nobody knew where they were. Soon, she learned that 7-month-old Saa’mir had been taken to Albert Einstein Medical Center, so the family went there with a pastor.
Byrd recounted the tragic scene of seeing the youngster’s father Sean arrive.
“He went in to see Saa’mir, and they told him he had passed [away],” she said. “After Saa’mir passed, we went to St. Christopher’s [Hospital for Children], where [4-year-old] Saa’deem was. There were 50 or 60 of us taken to a room. They said they couldn’t do anything for him.
“He was lying there on the bed. Sean sat there with him. He said he was not going to leave his side. I believe Saa’deem passed while we were there and they didn’t want to tell us; they started cutting off all the machines.”
When Byrd ended her brief testimony, another relative had to leave the courtroom in tears.
Shortly after Akhmedov — who told police at the scene that he first saw Banks about 70 yards away — declined to testify, closing arguments were presented to Geroff.
The judge decided the case because the defendant chose a non-jury trial on four counts of third-degree murder without the possibility of a mandatory life sentence. (Last week, the driver with whom Akhmedov was allegedly racing, Ahmen Holloman, pleaded guilty to four counts of vehicular homicide and faces up to 10 years in prison.)
His attorney, Michael Diamondstein, acknowledged that the case was “an absolute tragedy, maybe one of the most tragic cases that the court has ever seen. [The victims were] complete innocent people who didn’t deserve this.”
He then urged Geroff and observers to set aside their anger at Akhmedov and view the case through its narrow legal prism.
Doing that, per Diamondstein, would enable them to see that he did not have the malice warranting the third-degree murder charge. He also challenged police estimates that Akmedov was driving 80-plus mph at the time, estimating his speed in the “low 70s.”
He alluded to the boulevard’s deservedly dangerous reputation — noting that the city installed safety measures at the site afterwards — and the fact that the victims were jaywalking.
“It is his fault that this happened but as a matter of law, it doesn’t rise to that level,” said Diamondstein. “Trials are not places where anger should come into play. … If you take the anger out, what we have is reckless conduct.”
For his part, Lipscomb argued that malice could be seen in a multi-year pattern of behavior that saw the defendant rack up countless driving offenses to the point where he was personally warned by police eight days before the incident about it.
“The defendant chose not to see the victims. It’s him, his record and his malice, that caused this crash,” said Lipscomb before showing an image of Akhmedov’s vehicle complete with a shattered windshield on a screen onto which his recent driving history was projected.
There were multiple instances of speeding and reckless and careless driving, along with license suspensions of 10 days, 15 days, 25 days, 115 days, six months and one year.
“This accident was not an accident,” Lipscomb said. “It was the logical, inevitable result of days, months and years of sustained recklessness. The boulevard did not do this. The defendant did.”