A Virginia teen found dead after she was attacked as she walked to a mosque was being remembered at vigils set in the District and other cities nationwide Tuesday night, a day before her funeral.
The killing of Nabra Hassanen on Sunday also prompted calls from civil liberties advocates and her supporters to investigate her killing as a possible hate crime, including nearly 12,000 people who signed an online petition to the Virginia Department of Human Rights and the U.S. Justice Department.
Virginia police officials initially said that there is no indication that the 17-year-old was targeted because of her religion and that her killing was a “road rage incident” that happened as she and a group of other teens walked and biked along a street as they headed back to a mosque early Sunday.
But they also said their investigation continues.
Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh announced Tuesday that the criminal case against the suspect in the case — Darwin Martinez Torres, 22 — will stay in Fairfax County where the mosque and alleged abduction sites are, rather than moving to Loudoun County, where Nabra’s body was found in a pond hours after she was reported missing Sunday.
Authorities had thought about shifting the case for jurisdictional reasons because Nabra was found dead in the neighboring county.
But Morrogh said that Virginia statutes would allow him to prosecute Martinez Torres in Fairfax and that retaining the case made sense because Fairfax County police had investigated the teen’s disappearance. Morrogh said it was too early to say whether he might seek the death penalty.
“It’s very premature,” Morrogh said. “We are still sorting out all of the facts.”
Morrogh also did not rule out pursuing hate crime charges if fresh evidence pointed in that direction.
Fairfax County police said the incident began when a group up to 15 teens at an overnight event at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society mosque in Sterling left to grab a bite to eat at a nearby McDonald’s early Sunday.
As the teenagers were returning to the mosque about 3:40 a.m., Martinez Torres of Sterling drove up behind them on Dranesville Road in Herndon, police said.
Martinez Torres and a teen on a bicycle got into a dispute and Martinez drove his car up on the curb, scattering the teens, police said. He caught up to them in a nearby parking lot and chased them with a baseball bat before catching Nabra and hitting her, police said.
Martinez Torres then abducted Nabra and took her to another location in Loudoun County, where he assaulted her again, police said. Martinez Torres then allegedly killed Nabra and dumped her in a pond near his apartment complex in Sterling.
The other teenagers returned to the mosque, and authorities were called, touching off a search for the missing girl. Police dogs, helicopters and officers from Fairfax and Loudoun counties searched until her body was discovered about 3 p.m. Sunday, police said.
Martinez Torres, a construction worker, was arrested earlier — about 5:15 a.m. — after he was seen driving suspiciously near the location where Nabra disappeared, police said. He was being held in Fairfax County after an initial court appearance Monday.
Leaders of the ADAMS mosque held a news conference Tuesday evening, offering memories of Nabra and saying they had faith authorities would leave no stone unturned in determining whether a hate crime occurred.
“If you knew her you might possibly know why it was so hard for this community,” said ADAMS chaplain Joshua Salaam of Nabra's slaying. “An angel was taken.”
Salaam said Nabra, who had just completed 10th grade at South Lakes High School, helped those in need, lifted others with kind words and stood up for justice. He said the mosque’s youth would live by her example.
The case continued to strike a chord well beyond Virginia on Tuesday.
Vigils for Nabra were scheduled in Dupont Circle, New York City, Boston, San Francisco and Philadelphia. They will be followed by a vigil in Reston on Wednesday evening after a funeral that afternoon.
Hundreds gathered in Dupont.
Rania Salem, 21, of Arlington was one of the first to arrive. The college student is from the same area in Egypt that Nabra’s family is from, and said she attended because the teen was “one of us.”
“It could have been any of us — we all go to the mosque during Ramadan for prayer. We all think it’s okay to just go and get food with our friends,” Salem said.
By Tuesday, nearly 11,000 people had pledged contributions of more than $290,000 to a fund for Nabra’s family.
Also on Tuesday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said it was too early to label Nabra’s killing a road rage incident, as police tentatively did at a Monday evening news conference.
“We think it’s premature,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for CAIR. “We believe these incidents are at the core motivated by the perception that these subjects are Muslim.”
Nabra’s family said they feel certain she was abducted and killed because she was in Islamic clothing as she returned to the mosque, wearing a long women’s garment known as an abaya and a hijab.
Fairfax County police said Monday that they had turned up no slurs or other evidence that Martinez Torres was motivated to kill Nabra because of her religion.
Even so, they continue to investigate the case and would revise their initial assessment if evidence of a hate crime is found, they said.
Most hate crime cases are handled by state prosecutors and typically carry stiffer penalties than crimes charged without a bias component. Forty-five states and the District have specific hate-crimes laws. But most differ on what acts qualify, and some leave it to judges to decide whether to impose stiffer penalties at the time of sentencing.
Virginia’s hate-crime statute includes penalty enhancements for crimes motivated by race, religion and ethnicity. The law is not as comprehensive as measures in Maryland or the District that also cover bias related to gender, sexual orientation, disability and gender identity, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Federal hate-crime charges generally carry even harsher penalties than state statutes. Federal prosecutors in Northern Virginia have not opened an investigation.
Beyond the tougher potential punishment, formally attaching the hate-crime label in court can signal to the broader community that certain heinous acts are different because of their intended impact.
“Such incidents send shock waves through the entire community and have the potential to make communities feel unsafe and vulnerable,” Doron F. Ezickson, the ADL’s Washington regional director, said in a statement.
Ezickson said Tuesday that his organization is monitoring the investigation and has “every confidence in law enforcement to determine what happened to Nabra and whether the circumstances of her death merit a hate crimes charge.”
Nabra’s father told detectives that he thinks his daughter was killed because of her religion.
“Why was he running behind the kids wearing Islamic clothes with a baseball stick? Why, when my daughter fell down, why did he hit her? For what?” Mohmoud Hassanen said.
Victoria St. Martin, Julie Zauzmer and Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.