A man on trial for strangling the daughter of a Hall of Fame football player in 1999 took the stand in his own defense today in San Mateo County Superior Court.
Throughout emotional testimony that spanned several hours, Mohammed Haroon Ali, 36, covered his face and sobbed as he described the circumstances that led up to a fight in which he choked his girlfriend Tracey Biletnikoff to death on February 15, 1999.
Ali and Biletnikoff -- the daughter of former Oakland Raiders wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff -- were both recovering drug addicts and enrolled in drug rehab programs in San Mateo.
Ali testified that days before he fought with Biletnikoff, he heard that a former girlfriend was on the verge of giving birth to a child that he had fathered. He said he called the woman in an attempt to reenter her life and share part of the responsibility of raising the child, but she rejected the overture and hung up. The episode prompted him to relapse, Ali said. He and a friend went on a drinking binge in San Francisco, and ultimately drove back to San Mateo and bought drugs.
Ali testified that when he confessed to Biletnikoff that he relapsed, she got angry and told him he was going to have to start the Project 90 substance abuse program from the beginning.
"She said I had to start the program again," Ali said. "I had been in the program for two years. I was embarrassed." The couple drove around San Mateo arguing, Ali said. They eventually ended up in an office at "Friendship Hall," a meeting place for recovering addicts, and continued to argue.
"We just kept going back and forth," he said. "She was angry, and at that point I was starting to get angry, too." Ali told Biletnikoff he was going to quit the program, and she kept "nagging" him, insisting that he stay there and restart it.
The breaking point was when Biletnikoff called him "a loser" and compared him to an ex-boyfriend, who had also relapsed, Ali said.
"She started calling me names, I started calling her names," he said. Ali said that during the fight he told Biletnikoff about his pregnant ex-girlfriend, prompting her to hit him.
"At that point the argument became unbearable for me," he said. "I just wanted to get out of there." Biletnikoff blocked the doorway, and Ali said he grabbed her shoulders to try to get her to move. "I tried to pull her," he said, breaking down in tears and covering his face with his hand. "I held her neck."
Judge Barbara Mallach called a second recess for the defendant to compose himself after his testimony became inaudible. When Ali continued, he said he couldn't believe what he did when he saw Tracey on the ground with "big eyes" and white fluid coming out of her mouth.
"Her eyes were big," he said, crying. "She was dead."
Scared and confused, Ali said he devised a plan to cover up the crime and make it look like Tracey had been killed in a sexual attack. Ali said he tied a black T-shirt around her neck and choked her, while knowing she was already dead. He then put her body in the front seat of a Project 90 van and drove her from Freedom Hall to a parking lot at Canada College, where he pulled her pants off, and dumped her down a ravine, he said.
"I tried to make it look like a sexual crime," he said. Ali was eventually arrested trying to drive back from Mexico in Biletnikoff's car on Feb. 16.
Under cross-examination, District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said that before today, Ali had never said he tried to cover up the homicide by making it look like Tracey had been the victim of a sex crime.
"Is that because you're making it up?" Wagstaffe asked.
"No, I'm not," Ali said.
Prosecutors argue that Ali strangled Biletnikoff a second time to ensure that she was dead. He faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder.
Defense attorney Peter Goldscheider has argued that the homicide was a crime of passion, which carries a much shorter sentence.
This is the second time that Ali has been on trial in San Mateo County Superior Court for Biletnikoff's murder. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 2001 and sentenced to 64 years to life in prison.
In 2009, an appellate court overturned the conviction stating that prosecutors had improperly dismissed at least one black juror, thus requiring a retrial.
Cross-examination is scheduled to continue on Thursday.
--Bay City News