The man charged with killing a Queens imam and his assistant appeared briefly Thursday in Queens County Criminal Court after he was appointed a new attorney to defend him against first- and second- degree murder charges in the Aug. 13 killings.
His attorney, Michael Schwed, said he had only had the opportunity to meet with his client briefly, and that Oscar Morel, who turned 36 Thursday, had maintained his innocence.
“He says he doesn’t hate other religions. He doesn’t hate anybody of any religion, and he didn’t do this,” Schwed said. The killings may have been a hate crime, Schwed said, “but it wasn’t him.”
Morel’s friends erupted briefly into shouts as the hearing concluded. “We love you Oscar,” a few men yelled from the benches, before growing angry at a reporter who stood up to take a picture of Morel as he was led out of the room, in violation of the judge’s orders. “She should be arrested!” one of the men yelled. The same men then flashed middle fingers at the media as they left the courtroom.
Morel faces the possibility of life in prison without parole in the deaths of imam Maulama Akonjee and his assistant, Thara Uddin, both Bangladeshi immigrants, as they walked down a sidewalk near their mosque after Saturday afternoon prayers.
Schwed said his client has not been charged in the Brooklyn hit-and-run that occurred 10 minutes after the murders, which police said led them to Morel.
A city official speaking on the condition of anonymity said that was likely because Morel is already facing the highest maximum sentence in New York state, and a hit-and-run charge, a misdemeanor, which would be prosecuted by a different district attorney in a different borough, would be extraneous.
“I’m not representing him on that, so I don’t know anything about that case,” Schwed said of the hit-and-run, in which police say Morel struck a bicyclist with the same car that was captured on security cameras fleeing the scene of the killings in Queens.
Schwed also said he could not comment on police statements that Morel can be placed at the scene of the killings and that ballistics testing matched a weapon found in Morel’s home, because he hasn’t had a chance to review the information.
He said he expects his client to be indicted by a grand jury Monday, when the Queens District Attorney’s Office finishes its presentation on the case.
An older man who appeared to be Morel’s relative told a reporter for El Diario that Morel is of Dominican descent but was born in the United States.