Minneapolis murder case: Will X-rays of teeth resolve a critical issue?

Mahdi Ali
Hennepin County Sheriff
Mahdi Ali

How old was Mahdi Ali on Jan. 6, the day he allegedly shot and killed three men during a botched robbery in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood? If he was 16, as prosecutors assert, he will automatically be tried as an adult. If he’s convicted, that means a life sentence with no chance for parole.

If he was 15, as his lawyer insists, the County Attorney’s Office will have to petition the court to declare him an adult, a process involving an extensive background investigation. If he does go on to stand trial as an adult, his attorney believes his age means he cannot be given a life sentence.

Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter Cahill recently asked attorneys on both sides in Ali’s case to submit briefs outlining which side should have the burden of proof in determining his age at the time of the triple murder and what evidence should be considered.

Cahill will hear arguments Aug 3. In the meantime, the judge granted prosecutors’ request to X-ray Ali’s teeth, even though forensic dentists say the test won’t pinpoint his true age.

Judge Peter Cahill
Judge Peter Cahill

Ali’s alleged accomplice, Ahmed Abdi Ali (no relation), last month pleaded guilty for his role in the killings, which took place at the Seward Market. Based in part on surveillance videos from the store, prosecutors believe Ahmed Ali was in the back of the store trying to rob patrons when Mahdi Ali shot an employee, a customer and a bystander.

Refugees rarely flee their home countries with tidy documentation like birth certificates or passports. An astonishing number of asylum-seekers tell immigration officials they were born on New Year’s Day in the year that seems most likely. If circumstances later demand something firmer than a made-up birthday, there aren’t many reliable alternatives.

Margin of error
One of only a few forensic dentists in Minnesota, Ann Norrland gets frequent calls from attorneys and immigration officials interested in using X-rays to determine someone’s age. The older the subject, she said she tells them, the less accurate the process is. In the case of a teenager, there’s a margin of error of two years.

“I try to tell people of the limitations,” Norrlander explained. “The younger the child is, the more you have to go on. You can look at the eruption patterns of baby teeth and the eruption patterns of permanent teeth.”

While a tooth is developing, there is a wide opening at the end of the root, Norrlander continued. Eventually it closes to a tiny pinpoint through which nerves run. By late adolescence, ages 16 to 20, the only development still occurring is the formation of the third molars.

“If you take a panoramic X-ray and see that all of the third molars are fully formed and the roots are fully closed, the person is probably above a certain age” she said. “In terms of age estimation, it’s a guess. There is just an incredible amount of wiggle room in this part of forensic dentistry.”

Complicating matters, genes, illness, malnutrition and other stressors background can affect tooth development patterns. The norms used to evaluate any dental exam, Norrlander added, have “to be population specific. You can’t apply data from a Caucasian group to someone brought up in Somalia.”

As part of a case Norrlander was recently asked to consult on, she turned up about 100 studies involving different ethnic groups; many were conducted in Europe, where officials also are struggling with fallout from a high percentage of asylum-seekers with New Year’s Day birthdays. None promised precise answers, she said.

Frequent question
Scientists will keep looking, though, because the question comes up again and again. Last year, the FBI concluded that Abduhl Wali-i-Musi, accused of hijacking a U.S. cargo ship in the Indian Ocean, could be tried for piracy as an adult. The agency would not say what method it used to determine the age of the Somali man, who never had a birth certificate.

Bone scans and MRIs are sometimes helpful in ferreting out “age-doping” in male athletes, but two years ago, the International Olympic Committee struggled to find a way to determine the ages of six female Chinese gymnasts some suspected were younger than 16, the IOC’s minimum age for competitors.

Goetz and assistant county attorneys Bob Streitz and Chuck Weber have until May 13 to submit briefs to the judge laying out the methods they think the local court should follow. AIi’s attorney, Frederick Goetz, hopes to convince Cahill to decide the age issue after testimony from the boy’s relatives, some of whom are in South Africa.

Goetz believes Ali was born Aug. 25, 1995, in a refugee camp in Kenya. His mother was too ill to take care of him, so she gave him to her niece and nephew, who named him Khalid Arrasi. When he was 8, they gave him to another couple, who renamed him Mahdi Ali and brought him to the United States, giving him the Jan. 1, 1993, birthday that now appears on his driver’s license and other papers. Ali’s mother immigrated to Minnesota in 2006 and resumed custody.

“Our position is the most reliable way of determining his age is through the testimony of his mother and others who know when he was born,” said Goetz.

Beth Hawkins writes about criminal justice, schools and other topics.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 05/07/2010 - 04:46 pm.

    This case points out the apparent lax procedures used with these refugee immigrants.

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