Target, ‘Junk Science’ and Unreliable Testimonies: The Contentious Conviction of 15-Year-Old Mahdi Ali

Part 12 in the series: 21st Century Jim Crow in the North Star City

Minneapolis, MN — Overlooked details have emerged casting serious doubt on Mahdi Hassan Ali’s conviction for a 2010 triple murder, as well as the integrity of the investigation by the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) and the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.

“I was the perfect scapegoat.”

Mahdi Hassan Ali 

Part 12 – The final installation in the series: 21st Century Jim Crow in the North Star City

The remarkable story of Mahdi Ali, who is serving a life sentence for a triple murder that he says he didn’t commit, was once compared to a Charles Dickens novel. His supporters say he is provably innocent.

Unicorn Riot’s independent investigation of his arrest and prosecution found dozens of issues in the case and found that his conviction was largely based on unreliable testimonies from two people implicated in the crimes, along with the multinational retail giant Target Corp’s forensics team, who testified at trial against the teen.

Ahmed Shire Ali, the accomplice in the crimes, served 12 years in prison and testified against Mahdi, but before he was released from prison he recanted his claims of Mahdi’s involvement. “I was protecting someone else. And he (Mahdi) ended up taking the fall for something he didn’t end up doing.”

Editor’s notes: 1. When referring to the three suspects in this report, we use their respective first names to avoid confusion. 2. Documents’ page numbers refer to case file pages indexed in the “Case Documents” section. Refer there to see which pages are located in each PDF file.

Content advisory: the following section details violent acts. 

On the night of January 6, 2010, within 62 seconds of sheer horror, three men, Anwar Mohammed, Mohamed Warfa and Osman Elmi, were slain at the Seward Market in South Minneapolis during a robbery that went wrong.

At 7:43 p.m., two masked suspects entered the market. The first suspect pointed a gun at the two men working near the cash register, Osman Elmi and Mohamed Warfa, and demanded the money, while the second unarmed suspect ran to the back of the store where he attempted to subdue the two customers inside the market. 

Thirty seconds into the robbery, a customer, Anwar Mohammed, walked into the store startling the gunman, who turned around and shot him. Elmi and Warfa rushed the gunman from behind as he attempted to flee. That’s when he turned back around and shot Warfa, leaving his body in the doorway, as he fled the store. The second suspect followed the gunman out of the store as soon as he heard the shots. Elmi pulled out his cell phone appearing to call for help; seconds later the gunman returned and chased him to the back of the store and shot him three times in the back. On his way out, the gunman shot Anwar Mohammed again, who was apparently still alive. 

Three people were gruesomely killed in a botched robbery which was captured on surveillance video. 

Surveillance footage from Jan. 6, 2010 from the Minneapolis impound lot, the Dahabshiil check cashing store and the Seward Market. Mahdi Ali positively identified himself as the first of the three teens who entered the Minneapolis impound lot but denied being in the other two videos.

The Fallout

Within the first 48 hours of the murders, police positively identified one of the suspects as 17-year-old Ahmed Shire Ali (p. 100). He later pleaded guilty to three counts of aggravated robbery and received a 12-18 year sentence.

Charged with being the shooter, Mahdi Ali, who was just 15 years old at the time of the killings, denied any involvement and pleaded not guilty. He was tried as an adult and convicted September 23, 2011 for one count of premeditated first-degree murder, two counts of second degree murder, and three counts of first-degree felony murder. Mahdi Ali was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (p. 2052-2053). He is currently in MCF-Rush City.

Mahdi Ali identification picture, provided by the Department of Corrections from the early 2020s

For more than 14 years, Mahdi has ardently maintained his innocence. He believes Ahmed committed the crimes with his cousin and had every reason to frame him.

In 2013, Mahdi unsuccessfully appealed his sentence at the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ruled against him the following year, but he continues to fight for his freedom to this day.

An Extraordinary Story

Mahdi said growing up in the system and having a guardian who was illiterate and didn’t speak English made him an easy target for police to pin the murders on. “I was the perfect scapegoat,” he exclaimed.

Mahdi’s life story is something movies are made out of. He told Unicorn Riot his real name is Khalid Farrah and the couple that brought him to the U.S. from a refugee camp in Kenya when he was 9 years old were not his real parents. They changed his name and birth date to January 1, 1993 for immigration purposes. Mahdi Ali was the name of their child who died in Kenya.

A photo of Khalid Farrah (Mahdi Ali) when he was approximately five years old. Photo provided by Sainab Osman.

Khalid and Mahdi were friends and when his friend died, the parents offered him an opportunity to go to America, but he would have to assume the identity of their son, and keep it a secret, which he did. 

Upon arriving in the U.S., the couple separated and abandoned Mahdi, he told UR. He ended up in and out of foster homes, group homes, and juvenile detention centers, until he was reunited with who he thought was his grandmother, after she arrived from Kenya and won custody a few years later when he was in high school.  

Mahdi admitted that he wasn’t an angel. “I had to take care of myself,” he explained. 

“How could they blame me for surviving when I was just a kid and they put me in that situation in the first place?” Mahdi continued to get in trouble as a teen, though he said he never carried guns and mostly got into trouble for theft and stealing cars. “But I am not a killer,” he insisted.

Masjid Rawdah, a South Minneapolis’ mosque where Mahdi Ali volunteered, made this short video about his arrest expressing shock at the crimes he was charged with. The video depicts Mahdi working with youth from the mosque in 2009 during the holy month of Ramadan.

After Mahdi’s arrest, the woman he believed was his grandmother, Sainab Osman, revealed that she was really his biological mother, which was also backed up by DNA tests. Osman, with whom Mahdi shares a striking resemblance, spoke to UR through an interpreter. 

She explained that she was sick and nearly died during delivery and had no choice but to give the baby over to her niece and her husband, whom Mahdi always believed were his biological parents. The couple who brought Mahdi to the U.S. were neighbors and knew his parents.

Sainab Osman, Mahdi Ali’s mother, is sitting on her prayer rug in her home in South Minneapolis. Photo by Marjaan Sirdar.

Before trial, Osman produced Khalid Farrah’s Kenyan birth certificate stating that he was actually born on August 25, 1994, in Nairobi, making him 15 years old at the time of the murders, requiring his case to remain in juvenile court. But Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill rejected the document and instead allowed the state to have a dentist examine the teen’s teeth, a practice that is widely criticized as questionable science. The state’s witness testified that his teeth made him at least 17 years old, allowing the state to try him as an adult.

Osman said that she has always believed in her son’s innocence. “There’s no way I would’ve thought that he was involved,” she explained, adding, “the family supports him and we all want him home.”

Renewed Interest in the Case

The case was featured on See No Evil, a true-crime TV show based on solving cases using surveillance video forensics. An episode called “Too Much Video” aired in February. Two retired detectives who led the investigation for the MPD, Ann Kjos and Luis Porras, as well as then-county prosecutor Chris Weber, retell their versions of events surrounding the Seward Market murders. The program revealed that the same two suspects stopped at the Dahabshiil check cashing store at Franklin and Nicollet Avenues more than an hour before the murders, in what they reported was an apparent attempt to rob it before abandoning the plan. Unsurprisingly, the show portrayed the young Mahdi Ali as a cold-blooded killer and the case was closed, as far as they were concerned. 

However, Unicorn Riot’s investigation found that it’s not so simple. UR reviewed more than two thousand pages of documents, including the police report, trial transcripts, news reports and other legal documents. We conducted numerous phone interviews with Mahdi from prison, interviewed Mahdi’s mother, his friend he was with the night of the killings and several other sources, as well as reviewed parts of surveillance footage related to the crimes, all creating a very different version of events than the official account. 

This report documents nearly thirty issues we found in the official investigation of the Seward Market murders, from minor to major — detailing unethical practices used by police and prosecutors including the use of a paid informant and a jailhouse snitch, circumstantial evidence that points to other suspects, and the statement from Ahmed Ali that he lied about Mahdi’s involvement — all showcasing a fixation by authorities to convict Mahdi while the evidence suggests that the real killer escaped accountability.

Unicorn Riot redacted witnesses’ personal information from police reports.

This investigation covers 27 separate issues. As options for the reader’s preference, page through the timeline-style collection below, or underneath the collection, click the right-arrows to reveal issue details within the story page. The text in each display is the same but some image placements are different; there are no links in the collection.

Issue #1: Two Cousins Turned On Mahdi

Issue #2: Mahdi Claimed He Had an Alibi 

Issue #3: Mahdi Believes Police Manipulated the Report

Issue #4: Key Surveillance Footage Never Secured

Issue #5: Excluded Interviews

Issue #6: Height Contradiction

Issue #7: Target’s Scientific Racism

Issue #8: Mahdi Insists Police Planted Blood Drop 

Issue #9: No Evidence Found in Alleged Getaway Car

Issue #10: Adbisalan’s Friend Told MPD He Confessed to the Killings

Issue #11: Second Informant Fingered Abdisalan

Issue #12: Evolving Accusations 

Issue #13: Abdisalan Implicated Ahmed As He Hid

Issue #14: Abdisalan Didn’t Like Mahdi, Had Motive to Frame Him

Issue #15: Abdisalan Threatened Mahdi

Issue #16: Abdisalan Talks ‘Killings and Stuff’ at School

Issue #17: Cop Coercion

Issue #18: Abdisalan Offers Up His Cousin

Issue #19: Did Abdisalan Receive A Secret Deal? 

Issue #20: Abdisalan’s Alleged Alibi

Issue #21: An Unserious Investigation

Issue #22: Abdisalan Implicated in Another Killing

Issue #23: Ahmed’s Brother Had Stolen Gun Connected to Murder Weapon

Issue #24: Controversial Use of Paid Informant

Issue #25: Use of Jailhouse Snitch

Issue #26: Killer Identified Wearing Abdisalan’s Coat

Issue #27: Ahmed Recanted, Says Mahdi’s Innocent 

A Dishonorable Judge

Mahdi’s mother believes he did not receive a fair trial, stating that she was not happy with how Judge Cahill treated her son and their family.  

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to give minors life sentences without the possibility of parole and a chance at rehabilitation. When Judge Cahill was forced to re-sentence Mahdi, he gave him three consecutive life sentences (in Minnesota a life sentence is 30 years imprisonment), stating that he wanted to send a message to future generations, “no matter what the change in the law is.” He was roundly criticized by Mahdi’s supporters for undermining the high court because the new 90 year sentence effectively keeps the 15 year old in prison for life. 

Cahill was appointed to the bench in 2007 by Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) after serving as a prosecutor in the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office under Amy Klobuchar. He presided over the murder trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of murdering George Floyd in 2021. Prior to that trial, Mahdi’s trial was his highest profile case. 

In March, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned a separate murder conviction based on Judge Cahill abusing his discretion by providing false instructions to the jury. In 2022, he was in the crosshairs of community activists after it was revealed that he signed MPD’s no-knock search warrant that led to the police killing of 22-year-old Amir Locke

Ready For Redemption

Many people in Minneapolis’ Somali community aren’t sympathetic to Mahdi’s sob story. Few have been enthusiastic to support him over the past 14 years after coming to believe he was guilty. One man who went to high school with him told Unicorn Riot that Mahdi was the victim of what appeared to be a coordinated campaign against him. 

During our investigation, community members (who did not want to go on record) told Unicorn Riot, based on reviewing the surveillance videos of the crimes, that they don’t believe the killer was Abdisalan or Mahdi, but instead believe the killer’s profile more closely matched Ahmed’s brother, Abdirahman, who is linked to the murder weapon.

Image of a cell block at Rush City Correctional Facility. Photo Courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Content advisory: the following section mentions self-harm.

Mahdi has never wavered. He has maintained his innocence for nearly half of his life that he has spent, he argues, wrongfully incarcerated. He told Unicorn Riot that he would rather kill himself than admit to a crime he didn’t commit. He disclosed that he was placed on suicide watch after his conviction. But he quickly recovered: he found God and renewed his faith in Islam. While in prison Mahdi received his GED and earned a paralegal degree. He was a model prisoner at Oak Park Heights Correctional Facility, where he was incarcerated for 10 years, according to a source who was incarcerated with him. 

Another source told Unicorn Riot that fellow inmates at the Rush City Correctional Facility, where Mahdi is currently incarcerated, described him as someone who “stands out,” and is very much “a leader and a mentor” to the younger guys.

Mahdi said he would be an asset to society if he was exonerated and set free. He knows he has a lot to prove to his community and believes if granted that opportunity, he wouldn’t let the people down. 

“I just wanna give back to my community and show them that I’m not the person everyone was misled to believe.”

Mahdi Ali’s family has created a new petition on to help push for a new trial and exonerate him.

Cover image and graphics by Niko Georgiades for Unicorn Riot.

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