A five-week capital murder trial came to a swift ending Thursday when a Harris County jury took more than a half-hour of deliberations to convict a Jordanian immigrant of killing his son-in-law and orchestrating the slaying of his daughter’s close friend in what prosecutors said were “honor killings.”
Ali Mahwood-Awad Irsan, 60, was found guilty of masterminding two homicides as part of broader plot to kill five people, including his daughter, after she ran away from the family compound in rural Montgomery County, converted to Christianity and married a Christian man.
Family members of the victims said the quick verdict indicates the jury was certain that Irsan was guilty, and that “honor killings” are not acceptable.
“Honor killings have no place in American society,” said Michael Creed, the older brother of Coty Beavers, one of the victims. “These are not infrequent events that happen in some random part of the world. They’re happening in America and they’re on the rise.”
A lengthy punishment hearing will begin on Friday, and the jury will determine if Irsan should be sentenced to death or life without parole for the double homicide of 28-year-old Beavers in November 2012 and Gelareh Bagherzadeh, an Iranian activist who was a close friend of Irsan’s daughter, 11 months earlier.
As state District Judge Jan Krocker read the verdict, Irsan shook his head slightly and looked down at the counsel table where he was sitting in a black suit.
After the courtroom had been cleared, members of the Beavers and Bagherzadeh families, all with tears in their eyes, hugged the prosecutors who also cried.
“It’s been hard for all of us, but it’s a good day,” said Kathy Soltani, a family friend of the Bagherzadehs. “Two wonderful lives cut short. It’s senseless. It’s a hard day, even though it’s a happy day.”
The two seemingly unrelated murders shocked Houston residents in 2012, and for a time there was speculation that Bagherzadeh’s murder was the work of Iranian elements unhappy with her criticism of that country’s government. But an even darker motive was given in 2015, when Irsan, his wife, and son were charged with planning the killings to restore family honor.
In closing arguments, a team of special prosecutors insisted that the elder Irsan, the father of 12 children by two wives, was driven to murder by his fervent religious beliefs.
“Ali Mahwood-Awad Irsan is a radical extremist Muslim who must be stopped,” special prosecutor Anna Emmons told jurors. “This is premeditated capital murder to carry out one man’s views, it’s as simple as that.”
She went on to say that prosecutors were not putting Islam on trial, but the religious beliefs of a man who killed two people because his daughter converted to Christianity.
“Honor and shame, that’s what this is all about,” Emmons said. “You heard him say honor is a big deal to him. And the only way to clean that honor is to kill.”
Irsan’s defense team worked during closing arguments to blame anyone but their client.
“Ask yourself, do you really know what happened at either scene,” attorney Allen Tanner asked jurors. “I don’t think any of you can say exactly what happened.”
Tanner used parts of the prosecution’s case to argue that the people who fingered Irsan were actually the guilty ones.
He pointed out that prosecutors made a deal with Irsan’s wife, Shmou Ali Alrawabdeh, 40, to testify in exchange for dropping the murder charge she was facing.
She provided critical testimony by acknowledging she was with Irsan and their oldest son, Nasim, when they followed Bagherzadeh home late at night on January 15, 2012. Alrawabdeh testified she witnessed Nasim Irsan shoot Bagherzadeh in the head.
Alrawabdeh also testified that she was with her husband and son in November 2012 when the two men crept into the northwest Harris County apartment where Beavers lived with Irsan’s daughter, Nesreen.
She said the two men came out of the apartment of the newly wedded couple and told her that Irsan had killed Beavers.
Alrawabdeh also testified she was “happy” when Beavers was killed, a statement the defense seized on.
“It’s up to you if you want to believe that woman, but that is a cold-blooded lady,” Tanner told jurors. “I wouldn’t put it past Shmou to be the person who went into that house. She’s cold.”
Tanner also floated the idea that Nasim Irsan killed Bagherzadeh after the elder Irsan changed his mind about killing the activist outside her parents’ home, and so was not guilty. During the trial, there was testimony from Shmou and others that Irsan had “chickened out,” so Nasim got out of the car and shot Bagherzadeh.
Nasim Irsan, 24, is in the Harris County jail and is awaiting trial for capital murder.
However, Tanner did acknowledged that Irsan was angry that his daughter Nesreen ran away from home at the age of 23 and married Beavers.
“He was upset that she ran off with a Christian boy,” Tanner said. “That’s a fact.”
Irsan, who spent most of Wednesday testifying in his own defense, categorically denied any involvement in the slayings. A day earlier, he shouted that prosecutors were “devils” and “evil” as he was led from the courtroom.
Prosecutor Marie Primm summed up the case as a mission Irsan undertook to control his family and anyone who disobeyed him.
“They had dared to defy Ali Irsan,” Primm said. “They had dared to dishonor him, and he was going to clean his honor with blood.”