MADISON, Wis. — A Minnesota man of Somali descent who was convicted of opening fire on other Somalis will get a new trial after a detective improperly testified that Somalis often lie to police, a Wisconsin appeals court ruled Tuesday.
Ahmed Farah Hirsi was charged with multiple counts of attempted homicide and recklessly endangering safety in the January 2014 car-to-car shooting at the Spirit Seller liquor store in Hudson, Wisconsin, just across the state line from the Twin Cities. A jury convicted Hirsi in 2015 and he was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
According to court documents, the driver of Hirsi's car testified in a plea deal that Hirsi pulled the trigger. But the victims who testified at trial said they either didn't see the shooter or that it wasn't Hirsi. The driver of the victims' car testified that he told police that the man who shot him was still out there.
Prosecutors called Tracy Henry, a detective from St. Paul, Minnesota, to the stand. Minnesota has the largest concentration of Somalis in America.
Henry testified that in her experience Somalis don't trust police and prefer to handle disputes themselves. She added that Somali crime victims and witnesses tend to "fabricate" events to avoid retribution within their clans.
Hirsi argued on appeal that the judge never should have allowed the detective's testimony because it impugns the credibility of another witness and it was improper because it was based on race or ethnicity.
The 3rd District Court of Appeals agreed and ordered a new trial. The court ruled unanimously that the testimony violated legal rules that prohibit one witness from commenting about the truthfulness of another witness' testimony. The racial and ethnic aspect of Henry's testimony raises "heightened prejudice concerns," the court said. The relevance of group tendencies in predicting witness credibility is "extraordinarily weak," the court said.
"This just underscores the danger of going into a courtroom and telling a jury that an entire ethnicity of people lies and it's based on their culture, and using it to extrapolate that this individual is lying," Hirsi's attorney, Cole Ruby, said. "I don't know if insensitive is the word but it's very dangerous."
The state Department of Justice is handling the appeal on behalf of local prosecutors, as it does in almost all felony appeals. The agency could ask the state Supreme Court to overturn the appellate decision. DOJ spokeswoman Gillian Drummond said the department was reviewing the ruling.