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Published: Wednesday, 1/6/2010

Pending execution stirs pain anew

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Standing at their father's grave with snow skirting their ankles, Mona and Dolly Darwish recited the opening verses of the Qur'an.

It was both a birthday wish and a sign of respect for Sohail Darwish, a father they never really knew but who is kept alive through stories, photographs, and this solemn annual tradition done every year on Dec. 22.

On this visit, the girls - Mona, 16, and Dolly, 17 - wished their father what would have been a happy 45th birthday.

It was on May 26, 1993, just days before Dolly's first birthday and months before Mona was born, that two men entered the central-city store that Sohail and Charlotte Darwish owned. A third man waited in a car outside.

They demanded money. One brandished a gun.

With one shot, the Palestinian immigrant's life was over. His dream of owning a store and helping others was extinguished. And his family would not only have to endure the loss of the well-loved and respected man, but also the execution of his killer years later.

Vernon Smith, who has legally changed his name to Abdullah Sharif Kaazim Mahdi, is scheduled to be executed at 10 a.m. tomorrow for the aggravated robbery and murder of Mr. Darwish more than 16 years ago.

The victim's family - his wife, Charlotte, her husband, Dennis Martin, and two daughters - all will attend.

Vernon Smith, now Abdullah Sharif Kaaim Mahdi, left, is to be put to death for the murder of Sohail Darwish, right. Vernon Smith, now Abdullah Sharif Kaaim Mahdi, left, is to be put to death for the murder of Sohail Darwish, right.
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Mona Darwish is believed to be the youngest witness to attend an Ohio execution since the state resumed carrying out the death penalty in 1999.

"When I look back on that day, I just see a white wall. I just see white because I lost all grip of reality. … It was blank, empty, cold," Mrs. Darwish said recently.

"[This execution] is going to open up a whole new chapter. I'm now not only the widow of the murdered man, but I'm the widow of the murdered man whose killer was executed," she said. "It's going to bother me and pester my soul. Now there are two lives down the drain, all because of the actions of Vernon Smith."

Now 37, the killer sits on death row at the Ohio State Penitentiary at Youngstown. Unless a court or Gov. Ted Strickland comes to his defense, he will be transported roughly 260 miles to the death chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville where he is scheduled to die.

His conviction and subsequent death sentence was the result of a lengthy trial years ago in Lucas County Common Pleas Court. Among those who testified at the trial were an eyewitness and his two accomplices.

Herbert Bryson and Lamont Layson, who are cousins, reached plea agreements in exchange for their testimony against Smith, now Mahdi.

Bryson, who entered the store with the killer, was sentenced to 10 to 25 years for involuntary manslaughter and will be eligible for parole consideration next year. The driver, Layson, sentenced to seven to 25 years for aggravated robbery, was paroled eight years ago.

The killer was sentenced to death and after years of appeals and review by various courts, his execution date has neared.

Assistant State Public Defender Kimberly Rigby, one of the killer's attorneys, is trying to persuade Mr. Strickland to commute the death sentence to life in prison without parole.

"What happened was obviously tragic, but Mahdi did not mean to carry out murder," she said.

"He shot Mr. Darwish in what he thought was the arm, although it was really the upper chest under the collar bone. He only shot him one time. He did not harm the witness. He did not shoot Mr. Darwish again when he got up to trigger the alarm. [A doctor for the defense] who looked at the coroner's report noted that a shot in this area is typically not fatal. A little to the left or right and Mr. Darwish would have survived."

Assistant County Prosecutor J. Christopher Anderson disagrees.

One of the two prosecutors who presented the case at trial, Mr. Anderson said that - even years later - the evidence is clear.

"He shot him at point-blank range right in the chest. What do you intend when you do that?" he said. "If you shoot somebody in the chest from a foot away, you intend to kill him."

Mr. Anderson said that of the three men involved in the robbery of the Woodstock Market that May day, only Mahdi knew where it was located, on the corner of Avondale and Woodstock avenues.

Mrs. Darwish said recently that owning the market was her husband's dream.

A Palestinian native who was living in Saudi Arabia as a child, Mr. Darwish would play market with his sisters as a young boy, she said.

He immigrated to the United States as a young man after he was told by the Saudi government that he would only be accepted into agricultural school. Once here, he pursued an education at the University of Toledo, where he met his wife.

And within their first years of marriage, he fulfilled his goal of owning a store, she said.

"He actually accomplished his dream," Mrs. Darwish said. "And he was such a help to the community in that area. He had customers that he knew didn't have money and who had kids, so he'd give them food. That's the kind of person he was."

Mrs. Darwish has since remarried and now has two more daughters. But she said she continues to believe in her responsibility of keeping her late husband's memory alive.

So she recounts stories to Dolly and Mona. She struggles to remember every detail - Did Sohail always have a mustache? Where was that necklace he won from a rest stop machine on their way to Cleveland when he was undergoing the process to become a citizen?

But although many memories continue to make her smile and often laugh - like when he mistakenly said "papers" when referring to the many leaves on his car, or when he complained of his shoes saying his "fingers" hurt when he meant his toes - Mrs. Darwish said the true pain is in knowing that they are simply memories.

"All you have to live with is memories, but you can't touch a memory, you can't have a conversation with a memory. You may get a little solace out of it, but in the end it's empty because there's nothing there," she said.

"Pictures are amazing things, but they're also horrible things as well," she added. "You've got that picture as a memory, but that image haunts you. You just stare at that picture, but that picture doesn't talk back to you. It can't help you, it can't laugh with you when you're happy, it can't cry with you when you're sad."

"My thoughts haven't changed," Mrs. Darwish continued. "Vernon Smith, he lives, he dies. It's not going to bring my husband back."

Columbus Bureau Chief Jim Provance contributed to this report.

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-213-2134.



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