Syriani and his wife, Teresa Yousef Syriani, were separated. Syriani
was living in a motel, and his wife with their children in their
home. There was evidence of past physical abuse by Syriani against
One night shortly before midnight, Syriani drove to their home. As
his wife drove her car onto a nearby street, Syriani blocked her way
with his van.
Defendant got out of his van, gestured, and chased after her car as
she put it in reverse. As his wife sat in her car, defendant began
stabbing her with a screwdriver through the open door or window,
while their ten-year-old son, John, sat in the seat beside her.
John was unable to stop his father, got out and ran home to get his
older sister. At least two neighbors watched from their homes as
defendant stabbed his wife and then walked away.
Teresa Syriani died twenty-eight days later. She suffered numerous
stab wounds in the attack, the fatal wound a three-inch deep
puncture wound to the right temple.
Syriani stopped at a nearby fire station for first aid, claiming he
was battered by his wife. He was covered in blood, but had only some
light scratches on his arm and shoulder. Police were called and he
was arrested. The murder weapon, a screwdriver, was never found.
State v. Syriani, 333 N.C. 350, 428 S.E.2d 118 (N.C. 1993) (Direct
Syriani v. Polk, 118 Fed.Appx. 706 (4th Cir. 2004) (Habeas).
"I love you," he said to the Egglestons. "I love everybody." Over
the next 10 minutes he smiled, grimaced, cried. Mostly he talked to
the Egglestons. He mouthed each word carefully. We could pick up
only fragments. "I want them to be happy." "Fifteen years." "I hope
... I hope ... I really loved her."
(Prepared Statement: "I want to thank God first
for everything that happened in my life. I want to thank my children.
I want to thank my family, especially my sister, Odeet. I want to
thank all the beautiful friends who share with me my sufferings for
15 years and four months and they so encouraged me, specifically Mr.
and Mrs. Meg Eggleston who become a sister to me. She helped me a
lot to accept everything. I thank everyone from the staff, nurses,
chaplains. I thank everyone.")
North Carolina Department of
SYRIANI, ELIAS H.
DOC Number: 0398002
DATE OF SENTENCING: 06/12/91
COUNTY OF CONVICTION: MECKLENBERG COUNTY
CHARGE: MURDER FIRST DEGREE (PRINCIPAL)
DATE OF CRIME: 07/28/1990
Elias Syriani - Chronology of
10/13/2005 - Correction Secretary Theodis Beck
sets November 18, 2005 as the execution date for Elias Syriani.
10/3/2005 - U.S. Supreme Court denies Syriani's
petition for a writ of certiorari.
3/12/1993 - North Carolina Supreme Court confirms
Syriani's conviction and sentence of death
6/12/1991 - Elias Syriani sentenced to death in
Mecklenburg Co. Superior Court for the murder of Teresa Yousef
North Carolina Department of Correction
For Release: IMMEDIATE
Contact: Public Affairs Office
Date: Oct 13, 2005
Phone: (919) 716-3700
Execution date set for Elias Hanna Syriani
RALEIGH - Correction Secretary Theodis Beck has
set Nov. 18, 2005 as the execution date for inmate Elias Hanna
Syriani. The execution is scheduled for 2 a.m. at Central Prison in
Raleigh. Syriani, 67, was sentenced to death June 12, 1991 in
Mecklenburg County Superior Court for the 1990 murder of Teresa
Central Prison Warden Marvin Polk will explain
the execution procedures during a media tour scheduled for Monday,
November 14 at 10:00 a.m. Interested media representatives should
arrive at Central Prison’s visitor center promptly at 10:00 a.m. on
the tour date. The session will last approximately one hour.
The media tour will be the only opportunity to
photograph the execution chamber and deathwatch area before the
execution. Journalists who plan to attend the tour should contact
the Department of Correction Public Affairs Office at (919) 716-3700
by 5:00 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 11.
ATTENTION EDITORS: A photo of Elias Hanna Syriani
(#0398002) can be obtained by using the "Offender Search" function
on the Department of Correction Web site at www.doc.state.nc.us.
N.C. man executed for 1990 murder of wife
By Estes Thompson - Charlotte Observer
Associated Press - Nov. 18, 2005
RALEIGH, N.C. - A 67-year-old immigrant who
stabbed his wife to death with a screwdriver after she threatened
divorce was executed by injection Friday after the governor rejected
his children's' plea for clemency.
Elias Syriani was pronounced dead at 2:12 a.m. at
Central Prison, where he had visited and hugged his children
beforehand after 15 years locked away from their touch. The children
- including a son who witnessed the attack and testified against
Syriani - argued that letting him live would allow them to restore
their connection to their mother, Teresa.
In his final statement, Syriani thanked his
family and friends who shared "with me my sufferings for 15 years
and four months and they so encouraged me." Syriani looked into the
witness room, just on the other side of thick glass panes, when he
was wheeled on a gurney into the death chamber and smiled at a
couple who had visited him regularly for the past four years. His
children, brother Tony Syriani and sister Odeet Syriani weren't
there, nor were the children.
Two Charlotte detectives, six prison employees
and five reporters watched the execution in addition to the two
friends. Syriani was the fourth execution this year in North
Carolina. In an animated conversation through the glass, Syriani
appeared to say that he wanted his children to be happy and that he
loved his wife, who said she wanted a divorce before she was killed.
"This is a day of overwhelming sadness," defense lawyer Henderson
Hill said after the execution. "Tonight we punished four innocent
children already scarred by family violence. ... By taking the life
of a man in the process of giving life back to his kids, we betray
our own humanity."
Russ Sizemore, a lawyer representing the children,
said it was "incomprehensible" that Easley denied clemency after
hearing from Rose, Janet and John Syriani and Sarah Barbari, who had
been raised by their aunt and uncle in Chicago after their mother
At the time of the killing, Syriani was living
apart from his family and was under a restraining order. The
children "have traveled so far in the process of healing from the
terrible wounds of a horrible domestic tragedy that it is nothing
short of cruel that their journey would be violently interrupted
tonight by another death, a death entirely within our power to
prevent," Sizemore said.
Easley said in a statement that he found "no
convincing reason to grant clemency and overturn the unanimous jury
verdict affirmed by the state and federal courts."
Syriani was convicted in the death of his wife,
Teresa, 40, who was stabbed 28 times with a screwdriver in Charlotte.
She died 26 days later from the attack that happened after her
husband stopped her as she drove home from work and tried to get
away from him. The children hadn't seen their father on death row
until two years ago and have since said they have forgiven him. Part
of their forgiveness stemmed from learning about his traumatic
upbringing as an Assyrian Christian in Jerusalem and Jordan.
Easley has granted clemency twice since taking
office in 2001, but has not spared the life of any death row inmate
since January 2002. North Carolina governors have granted clemency
only three other times since the state resumed executions in 1984
after a hiatus while the U.S. Supreme Court determined its
Nationally, clemency was granted 186 times -
including 167 commutations by the Illinois governor in 2003 -
between 2001 and 2005, according to the Death Penalty Information
Eyewitness to a killer's execution - Charlotte
man, 67, executed today
By Tommy Tomlinson -
Nov. 18, 2005
RALEIGH (6:40 a.m.) - The door opened at the back
of the death chamber and they wheeled Elias Syriani in. He was
smiling. He was strapped to a gurney, lying on his back, a blue
sheet covering his body, two pillows propped under his head.
You could see a pink-and-blue beaded necklace
around his neck. You could see the edges of a white curtain at the
sides of the window. You could not see the IVs in his arms. The
tubes ran behind him, out of sight, and in a few minutes they would
deliver the chemicals that would kill him. The clock in the witness
room at Central Prison said 1:50 a.m. Friday.
An execution is such a huge thing but it happens
in such a small space. The preparation room, just outside the death
chamber, is so tiny you can stand in the middle and touch both walls.
The death chamber, maybe half again as big. The witness room, the
size of a walk-in closet.
Fifteen of us crowded in there – six prison
employees, five reporters, two Charlotte-Mecklenburg police
detectives, two of Syriani’s friends. All that separated us from him
was two panes of glass. His eyes settled on his friends, Meg and
Donald Eggleston, sitting on the front row. They were close enough
to touch. But no one on our side could hear him. All we could do was
try to read his lips.
"I love you," he said to the Egglestons. Then: "I
love everybody." This is why he was there on the gurney.
Elias and Teresa Syriani were married 15 years
and had four children. Syriani had been beating his wife. She got
police to remove him from their Charlotte home. She filed for
divorce. One night in 1990, as she drove home from work, he waited
for her near the home they used to share. He blocked her car with
his van. He got out and reached into the car and stabbed her 28
times with a screwdriver. Their son was in the car with her. Syriani
spent his last day on earth with his children.
After the murder, the kids – Rose, Sarah, John
and Janet – wrote their father out of their lives. But two years
ago, after an emotional visit, they chose to forgive. Last week they
met Gov. Mike Easley at their father’s clemency hearing. They asked
him to stop the execution. When the kids arrived at the prison
Thursday morning, Easley still hadn’t decided. Russell Sizemore, the
kids’ lawyer, gave this account: They visited their father from 10
a.m. on, stopping only for short breaks. It was the first time they
had touched him in 15 years.
About 7:30 p.m., Henderson Hill – Elias Syriani’s
lawyer – got word from the governor’s office. He went up to see his
client. Guards moved the kids out so Hill could go in. They crossed
paths in the hallway and they saw the news in his eyes. Their last
chance, gone. They left the prison at 11 p.m., crying so hard they
could barely stand. Syriani’s family decided they would not witness
He did not want a last meal. At 1 a.m., he
stripped to his shorts and was strapped to the gurney. He gave a
short statement to prison officials, thanking God and his family and
his friends and the prison staff. At 1:40, in the witness room, they
dimmed the lights. At 1:50, Syriani was wheeled into the death
Over the next 10 minutes he smiled, grimaced,
cried. Mostly he talked to the Egglestons. He mouthed each word
carefully. We could pick up only fragments. "I want them to be
happy." "Fifteen years." "I hope ... I hope ... I really loved her."
At 2 a.m., three unseen executioners plunged
syringes into IV tubes. One of the tubes led to an empty bag. The
executioners will never know which two of them sent chemicals into
Syriani’s veins. The first chemical was sodium pentothal, to put him
to sleep. He smiled at the Egglestons one last time. "With all my
heart," he said.
He looked up at the ceiling. Under the blue sheet,
his chest heaved once. Then his mouth opened and his eyes closed and
his head sank into the pillows. Meg Eggleston stood up, hands
fluttering. A guard helped her leave the room.
The next chemical was Pavulon, a paralyzing drug.
The last was potassium chloride, which stops the heart. The blue
sheet no longer moved. Donald Eggleston whispered: "Oh, dear God."
The heart monitor in another room had to run flat for five minutes
before death was official.
For a long quiet time, there in the dark room, we
watched him lie still. Fifteen years ago, Elias Syriani killed his
wife. Friday morning, the state of North Carolina killed Elias
Syriani. At 2:12 a.m., the curtain closed.
Dad killed Mom, but they can't picture him gone
By Tommy Tomlinson -
Sun, Nov. 13, 2005
RALEIGH -- Sarah holds the bag close so the
memories won't fall out. It's a plain black tote bag but on the
outside are clear plastic sleeves. Room for five photos. The top row
has one of Sarah's husband, and one of them dancing at their wedding,
and an ultrasound of the baby she's due to deliver in April. The
bottom left has a photo of Sarah with her siblings -- John, Janet
and Rose. The last photo shows their parents. Teresa and Elias
Syriani. A smiling young couple. That picture was taken a long time
In 1990, Elias killed Teresa. He blocked her car
in the street near her Charlotte home and he stabbed her 28 times
with a screwdriver. In 1991, he was sentenced to death. On Friday,
he is due to be executed.
For years the children hated him. They burned
with fury when people said his name. But now they are trying to save
their father's life. And they know people are wondering why. Why
have they traveled the state, pleading for support, weeping in front
of strangers? Why did they shake off their nerves and go on "Good
Morning America" and "Larry King Live"? Why are they begging Gov.
Mike Easley to spare the man who killed their mother? Why are they
doing this to themselves?
They don't have the words. But they do have
Memories in soft focus
"I can see these things in my head, so vividly,"
Sarah says, and the other kids nod, they can see them, too.They
remember this: Elias Syriani worked at a machine shop. He would come
home with steel shavings in his hair. He would sit in his chair and
corral the kids in his arms and they would pick the shavings out.
They remember this: Some nights he would give the kids tweezers and
they would pluck the hair from his ears. He would squeal, acting
like they were hurting him, and the kids would lose their breath
laughing. Janet remembers her dad coming to school to have lunch
with her. John remembers staying up all night with his dad so they
could put together Janet's pink bike. This was the life they had.
Their father was a part of it.
On Wednesday, when they visited him at Central
Prison, he reminded them of the time they took a vacation to Myrtle
Beach. Rose had a dog named Cookie and she wouldn't leave without it.
But when they got there they couldn't find a hotel that took pets.
They went to a campground but the dog started barking and other
campers complained. So their dad took the dog to the beach at 4 in
the morning so everybody else could sleep. "I had forgotten how much
I loved that dog," Rose says. "That was my childhood. That was a
piece of me."
They have even more stories about their mom. How
she used to wait with Rose every day at the school bus stop. How she
chased down Janet's bus one morning because Janet forgot the potato
chips with her lunch. These days, sometimes Sarah has a dream. All
four kids are at home, sitting at the kitchen table. Their dad is
sitting with them. Their mom is in the kitchen making dinner. "We're
looking around the table at each other," Sarah says. "She's not
supposed to be here. She's dead. But we don't say anything. Because
we don't want her to go away."
These pictures belong in the album, too. Nobody
wants them there but they are glued to the pages. Elias Syriani beat
his wife. Police were called to the house 10 times in two years.
Teresa told neighbors that Elias hit her with a table leg. Once he
went after her with a baseball bat. She got a restraining order and
he was forced to leave their southwest Charlotte home. She filed for
divorce. On a summer night in 1990 she drove home from her job at a
convenience-store deli. John was with her. He was 10.
A block from home, Elias blocked her car with his
van. He took the screwdriver in his hand and reached in through her
door. The car shook. John tried to push his father away. Then he ran
home and told Rose to call the police. Witnesses said Elias attacked
Teresa, went back to his van, then started walking back toward the
car. He left only when he saw a neighbor heading toward him. Teresa
died after 26 days in a coma. By then the kids were living with
their aunts. And Sarah was cutting her father's face out of the
Raising and lifting each other
Look at this picture, just a few days ago, the
kids in their Raleigh hotel room -- joking, finishing one another's
stories, arguing about who's the best Ping-Pong player.Their aunts
raised them, but just as much, they raised one another. Janet
remembers winning a school award in eighth grade and needing to
bring a parent for dinner with the principal. She went to her oldest
sister and said: Rose, you've got to be my mama tonight.
Janet's 23 now and studies accounting. John's 25
and sells Hondas at a car dealership outside Chicago. Sarah's 27 and
lives with her husband near San Francisco. Rose, who's 29, just got
a job doing consumer research in the same part of the country; she's
moving in with Sarah until she finds a place of her own.
They try to explain how they came to forgive
their father for what happened 15 years ago. They say it's a
miracle. They say it's their mother watching over them, telling them
it's OK. Every so often they just shrug. They don't have the words.
It happened so fast last summer. The four of them decided to visit
their father together. Sarah was about to get married and wanted to
see if she could cleanse her heart. Rose wanted to show her father
how far she had made it without him.
They had read a report prepared for his court
appeals. It told them things they had never known. It told how Elias
had grown up poor near Jerusalem, how his father had been sent to
prison and exiled to Jordan, how the family was torn up with anger
and guilt. They felt sorry for him. They did not yet forgive. But
they got to the prison and he smiled at them behind the glass and
their hate fell away. "I don't quite know how to say this," Rose
says. "None of this justifies what he did. There is no way to
justify it. "But now we're able to pick up these wonderful pieces of
our lives, these things we had put away. It's not our fault any of
this happened. We just have to find out a way to live. "Our mom and
dad did love each other. And the love they had together -- " Sarah
breaks in: " -- created us." "Yes. Created us."
A talk with the governor
There's no chance that Elias Syriani will be
freed. His best hope is life without parole. Clemency from the
governor is his main chance at escaping execution. North Carolina
has no clemency board; Gov. Easley makes the decision on his own.
The hearing was Thursday at the Capitol. Normally, Easley focuses on
the legal arguments in the case. So the Syriani kids weren't
scheduled to talk with him; instead they had a meeting with his
chief legal counsel, Reuben Young. The kids showed up early, just in
case. The hearings are closed to the public. Mecklenburg County and
state prosecutors spoke to Easley first. (They wouldn't comment on
what they said in the hearing.) Henderson Hill, Elias Syriani's
lawyer, went next. He said he made the case he has made through
years of appeals: that the jury didn't get to hear about the hard
life Syriani had growing up, or about possible evidence of mental
As Easley listened to the legal arguments in his
office, the kids spoke to Young in a room on the other side of the
hallway. They finished. They waited. Then they were asked to come
across the hall. The governor showed them pictures of his children.
Rose and Sarah did most of the talking. They told the governor that
they lost the most when their mother died. But now they have their
father back, and they have the most to lose again. Easley usually
waits until the final hours to decide on clemency. Since he took
office, he has stopped executions twice. Twenty-one times he has let
Later Thursday, about 12 hours after he spoke to
the kids, Easley denied clemency in the case of Steven Van McHone.
McHone died by lethal injection Friday morning.
There is a videotape of John and Janet's
christening. The images on the screen are the only moving pictures
the family has left. The kids tried to watch 10 years ago but they
couldn't take it. Then the tape went into evidence at their father's
trial. Finally, two weeks ago, they watched. The tape shows a party
that the Syrianis had in their yard. Dozens of people came. Elias --
who sang on the radio back in Jordan -- is singing in Arabic: This
life that I'm living is a beautiful life. Teresa comes up and wraps
her arms around him, runs her fingers through his hair, wipes the
sweat from his face. All around them, children dance.
For years the Syriani children cut their father
out. Now, at the end, he is back in the picture. They don't know if
you can understand. Sometimes they don't understand. But this is
what they have. Memories, an old blurry tape, some photos on the
side of a bag.
You take the snapshots, and you arrange them a
certain way. And out of that you try to make a life.
NC governor denies clemency for Elias Syriani in
By Estes Thompson - Lexington Dispatch
AP - November 17. 2005
Gov. Mike Easley denied clemency Thursday for
Elias Syriani, the Charlotte man condemned to death for the 1990
stabbing death of his wife. The decision came despite pleas from the
Syriani children, who had asked the governor and prosecutors to
spare their father's life so they could forge a relationship with
him and restore family memories that were severed by the killing. "After
careful review of the facts and circumstances of this crime and
conviction, I find no convincing reason to grant clemency and
overturn the unanimous jury verdict affirmed by the state and
federal courts," Easley said in a statement.
Syriani, 67, was scheduled to die at 2 a.m.
Friday by injection at Central Prison in Raleigh. The children -
three daughters and a son, who witnessed the attack in the family
car - began visiting with their father at the prison Thursday
morning. They left him shortly before 9 p.m. and the daughters were
sobbing. Thursday's visit was the first time the children had been
able to touch their father in 15 years, said Russ Sizemore, an
attorney for the children. "The contact visit, literally, that's the
first contact they've had with their father in 15 years, touching,"
said Russ Sizemore, an attorney for the children.
Sizemore said Easley's decision not to grant
clemency was inexplicable. to He said he gave research to the
governor showing that clemency would help the family heal from the
domestic violence. "It had greater depth and implications than just
a sob story for four people," Sizemore said. "They've traveled such
a long distance that it is just inexplicable in some ways to have
the journey end this way."
Syriani did not request a last meal, said Pam
Walker, spokeswoman for the state Correction Department.
The children, all of whom live out of state, had
been vocal public advocates for clemency, but grew more private as
the execution day approached and inmate Steven Van McHone was put to
death ahead of their father. McHone's execution brought the reality
of the death chamber home to them, Sizemore said.
Easley has granted clemency twice since taking
office in 2001, but has not spared the life of any death row inmate
since January 2002. North Carolina governors have granted clemency
only three other times since the state resumed executions in 1984
after a hiatus while the U.S. Supreme Court determined its
constitutionality. Nationally, clemency was granted 186 times -
including 167 commutations by the Illinois governor in 2003 -
between 2001 and 2005, according to the Death Penalty Information
Syriani was convicted in the death of his wife,
Teresa Syriani, 40, who was stabbed 28 times with a screwdriver in
Charlotte. She died 26 days later from the attack that started when
she told her husband as they drove home that she wanted a divorce.
The couple was separated and she had gotten a restraining order
Syriani's lawyer, Henderson Hill, said he dropped
all legal action in the case, pursuing clemency. Prosecutors, who
also have talked to the children, refused after meeting with Easley
to say whether they favored execution.
The Syrianis hadn't seen their father on death
row until two years ago and have since said they have forgiven him.
Part of their forgiveness stems from learning about his traumatic
upbringing as an Assyrian Christian in Jerusalem.
Governor is killer's only hope
With no appeals
filed, Elias Syriani's children seek commutation for the man who
killed their mother; Syriani is to be executed Friday
By Andrea Weigl - Raleigh News and Observer
November 17, 2005
The children of Elias Syriani had to reconcile
with their murdering father to reconnect with memories of their
mother, whom he killed 15 years ago. Now, Gov. Mike Easley is their
only hope of not losing that newfound connection to their mother.
Syriani, 67, is scheduled to be executed at 2 a.m. Friday at
Raleigh's Central Prison. Syriani's appellate lawyers decided not to
file any last-minute appeals seeking a stay from the courts.
Therefore, Syriani's sole chance to escape lethal injection rests
At the time of the killing, the couple lived in
Charlotte with their four children, who are all asking that their
father's death sentence be commuted. The governor met last week with
the Syriani children -- Rose, Sarah, John and Janet, all now in
Syriani was sentenced to death for stabbing his
wife, Teresa, more than 25 times with a screwdriver. Their son, John,
10 years old at the time, witnessed the attack. All of the children
lived with the escalating domestic violence in the family's home
before the killing. Last year, they all reconciled with their father
and have since reveled in the memories of their mother that writing
to and visiting with their father have restored.
"In this case, it is the kids' healing that's the
issue," said Charlotte lawyer Russell Sizemore, who represents the
four siblings. "It's the children of domestic violence saying, 'We
have a chance to recover our lives; please don't stop that healing
Elias Hanna Syriani, 67, was scheduled to be
executed Nov. 18 for the 1990 murder of Teresa Yousef Syriani in
Mecklenburg County. Fifteen years ago, the four Syriani children -
Rose, Sarah, John and Janet -- lost their mother. Now, they are just
weeks away from losing their father: 67-year-old Elias Syriani, who
is scheduled to be executed next month for the July 1990 murder of
his wife and the mother of his children, Teresa and they are
pleading with Gov. Mike Easley to save their father's life. "We're
just begging that this does not get carried out," daughter Rose
Syriani said during a press conference at the Legislature on Tuesday.
"This is four lives that will be destroyed."
Teresa Syriani was stabbed 28 times with a
screwdriver as she sat in her car with her son, John, in Charlotte,
police said. Three of the children testified against their father
either during the guilt or penalty phase of the trial. After more
than a decade of estrangement, the children, who are now adults, met
with their father at Central Prison in August 2004. "I've always
thought of him as a murderer that took my mom. But when I saw him
for the first time waving and smiling like a kid in Disneyland, I
saw my dad," daughter Sarah Barbari said. Over the past year, the
children have developed a new relationship with their father. All
four children said their change from anger and bitterness to
forgiveness and love is a "miracle" they believe is the work of God
and their mother.
The U.S. Supreme Court and Easley will look at
the law surrounding the case. Defense attorneys, who have lost their
appeals in lower courts, claim Elias Syriani did not have a
competent attorney at trial. Syriani's attorneys said they have one
more appeal to file with the courts. On Nov. 8, they also plan to
meet with Easley during a clemency hearing in which they will ask
the governor to stop the execution. Syriani is scheduled to be
executed at Central Prison on Nov. 18.
National Coalition to Abolish
the Death Penalty
Elias Hanna Syriani faces execution in North
Carolina Nov. 18 for the July 28, 1990 murder of his wife in
Mecklenburg County. Syriani and his wife had recently separated.
Witnesses at Syriana’s trial disagreed with each other regarding
whether his marriage was a violent one.
The murder weapon, a screwdriver, was never found.
Two witnesses testified that, while he was seeking treatment for
wounds to his face and leg, Syriani claimed that his wife assaulted
him the evening of the murder. A number of witnesses close to, or
familiar with, Syriani and his family testified that he was an
honest, hospitable, mild-mannered man who was head of a loving and
Trial counsel failed to present mitigating
evidence of Syriani’s harsh upbringing in a poor and abusive
household in Palestine and Jordan. When Syriani was 12 years old his
village was annexed by Israel and his father was among the men held
indefinitely in a camp. More than a year later his father returned,
but was not the same. After his trial, a psychiatrist claimed that
Syriani was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at the
time of the crime.
The defendant expressed his sorrow and remorse
for the crime. He presented evidence at trial that he had been well-behaved
in jail. He also suggested that he was under emotional and mental
distress at the time of the crimes because he feared losing his wife
and children. Syriani is now 67 years old.
Please write Gov. Michael Easley requested that
Elias Hanna Syriani’s sentence be commuted to life in prison.
A Family's Journey Through Tragedy to Forgiveness
Elias Syriani was sentenced to death in
Mecklenburg County for the 1990 murder of his wife, Teresa. The
State of North Carolina has scheduled Elias Syriani's execution for
November 18, 2005. Today, the living victims of this crime, Elias
and Teresa's adult children—Rose, Sarah, John and Janet—urgently
plead for their father's life to be spared.
Rose, Sarah, John and Janet Syriani were children
when their father murdered their mother. Their lives were torn apart
by their father's actions and they were left to raise themselves,
burdened with loss, hate and confusion. Nevertheless, two years ago,
after a decade of silence, they felt a need to confront this man who
had caused them so much pain. In a remarkable encounter at Central
Prison, Rose, Sarah, John and Janet experienced the beginnings of a
healing process that continues to this day. They say the courage to
confront and ultimately forgive their father came from their mother,
Teresa. They found a different man than they expected, and they have
been transformed as well, by learning of his sorrow, his love for
them, and the power of their forgiveness. This transformation is not
Teresa Syriani's children understand more
powerfully than anyone the loss and pain their father caused. Yet
for Rose, Sarah, John and Janet, the arc of healing from their
terrible loss now bends toward forgiveness, and a new relationship
with their father and newly recovered memories of their mother. That
healing is now threatened by another hurtful final loss. Here the
death sentence will inflict a new wound on those who have already
suffered from the crime. Recently speaking out against her father's
death sentence, Sarah pleaded for mercy, for her father, and for her
siblings, saying, “We've suffered enough.”
Please support Rose, Sarah, John and Janet
Syriani's efforts, by asking Governor Easley to grant clemency for
State v. Syriani,
333 N.C. 350, 428 S.E.2d 118 (N.C. 1993) (Direct Appeal).
Following jury trial before the Superior Court,
Mecklenburg County, Robert M. Burroughs, J., defendant was found
guilty of first-degree murder of his wife and sentenced to death.
Defendant appealed. The Supreme Court, Whichard, J., held that: (1)
excusing prospective juror for cause because of his views on death
penalty did not deny defendant's constitutional rights; (2)
children's testimony regarding defendant's specific instances of
prior misconduct toward them and their mother was properly admitted
to show motive, opportunity, intent, preparation in absence of
mistake or accident; (3) cross-examination of defendant with regard
to both specific and general misconduct toward his wife was proper;
(4) state was properly permitted to question defendant's character
witnesses regarding specific acts of misconduct by defendant; (5)
color photographs of victim's body were properly admitted to
illustrate testimony; (6) evidence was sufficient to sustain
conviction of first-degree murder; (7) aggravating circumstance that
murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, was properly
submitted, instructions were not too vague, and evidence supported
determination of existence of circumstance; (8) defendant's
testimony alone that his judgment was affected by emotional
disturbance did not support reasonable inference that defendant's
capacity to appreciate criminality of his conduct was impaired,
lessened or diminished such as to require submission that mitigating
circumstance; and (9) imposition of death penalty was not
disproportionate. No error.
Defendant was tried on an indictment charging him with the first-degree
murder of his wife, Teresa Yousef Syriani. The jury returned a
verdict finding defendant guilty upon the theory of premeditation
and deliberation. Following a sentencing proceeding pursuant to
N.C.G.S. § 15A-2000, the jury recommended that defendant be
sentenced to death. For the reasons discussed herein, we conclude
that the jury selection, guilt, and sentencing phases of defendant's
trial were free from prejudicial error, and that the sentence of
death is not disproportionate.
State's evidence tended to show the following:
Defendant and his wife were living apart, defendant in a motel, and
his wife with their children in their home. On 28 July 1990, around
11:20 p.m., defendant drove to their home, but his wife had not
returned from work. As she drove her automobile onto a nearby
street, defendant blocked her way with his van.
Defendant got out of
his van, gestured, and chased after her car as she put it in
reverse. As his wife sat in her car, defendant began stabbing her
with a screwdriver through the open door or window, while their
ten-year-old son John sat in the seat beside her. John was unable to
stop his father; he got out of the car and ran home to get his older
sister. At least two neighbors watched from their homes as defendant
stabbed his wife and then walked away. Teresa Syriani died
twenty-eight days later due to a lethal wound to her brain.
David Wilson testified that he lived in the
Syrianis' neighborhood. He knew defendant's son but only knew
defendant by sight. On 28 July 1990, around 11:20 p.m., Wilson was
at home when he heard children hollering. He looked out his window
and saw a van parked across the street with the interior lights on
and the door open. He looked again and watched defendant come toward
the van, get into the driver's seat, and fumble with something. Then
he saw defendant go back down the street and cross the street to a
car in the driveway of the house next to Wilson's.
over inside the car. Wilson saw the car shaking. Then Wilson went
outside, whereupon he saw defendant back in the van. He also saw two
young boys, John Syriani and John's friend. Wilson heard a young
woman hollering "somebody help my mother" and went to the car. A
woman in the car was covered in blood. A neighbor wiped her face.
She looked to him "like somebody [who] had been shot in the face
with a load of buckshot."
Thomas O'Connor testified that he lived near the
Syrianis but did not know them. On 28 July 1990, around 11:20 p.m.,
he received a phone call from a neighbor prompting him to look out
his window. O'Connor saw a man standing at a car halfway in a
driveway holding what appeared to be a screwdriver and "stabbing
into the car." O'Connor ran outside, yelling, and made eye contact
with the man. The man kept stabbing into the car. O'Connor ran back
inside to phone the police, then ran outside. He saw the van pulling
away. The van stopped and the man, screwdriver in hand, got out and
walked toward the car. The man saw O'Connor, turned back to the van,
and drove away.
Defendant's eleven-year-old son, John, testified
that the family had lived in the house in Charlotte since 1986
except for a week in the summer of 1988 when the police took him,
his sisters, and his mother to a Battered Women's Shelter. Then they
stayed with his mother's sister in New Jersey for about a month.
When defendant came to take them back, they returned to Charlotte.
In July 1990 he, his three sisters, and his mother lived in a motel.
They moved back to their home when defendant moved out.
28 July 1990, John went with his mother to the
Crown gas station. His father came by and asked him to go out with
him. John rode home with his mother and saw his father's van stopped
ahead as they approached their home. As his mother approached the
turn onto the main street before their house, defendant moved the
van to block her way. Then defendant got out of the van, gestured,
and chased the mother's car. She put the car in reverse. Defendant
opened the door and started stabbing John's mother, who started
screaming. John tried to push his father's hands off her, but he
could not stop his father. John ran home to get his older sister and
told her, "Dad is killing Mom." John then ran to his friend's house.
John and his friend ran back to his mother's car, now in a
neighbor's driveway. Defendant was kneeling at the open door,
stabbing into the car. Defendant then walked back to the van and
yelled, "Go home bastard," in Arabic, to John. Frightened, John ran
back down the street. Neighbors took John into their home.
On cross-examination, John testified that his
father worked long hours. His father always carried a screwdriver as
part of his work tools. His mother had never worked, had dressed
according to Arabic tradition, and had worn no makeup or lipstick
before they moved to Charlotte. His parents had argued, but mostly
over the children. In 1988 or 1989, John's mother decided she did
not like staying at home and wanted to get a job. At her second job
at a gas station, she worked some nights. When his mother worked
nights, his older sister babysat. Starting in 1990, his parents
argued more frequently. Defendant did not like the fact that John's
mother was working; he wanted her to stay home with the children. In
July 1990, defendant moved into a motel.
When he first spotted the van the night of 28
July 1990, John thought the motor was turned off because the
headlights were turned off. Defendant, however, turned on the
headlights and turned his van to the right across the street.
Defendant had stabbed John's mother once before the car came to a
complete stop in a driveway. On redirect examination, John recalled
seeing his father slap his mother when he was five and hit his
mother in "the ear" on Easter Sunday, 1989. John also recalled
seeing his mother "screaming and running out of the house" while his
father stood at the door in the summer of 1988. Finally, John
testified that his mother was a good mother. She and his father
argued about three times a week, and his father called her names,
for example, "whore."
Defendant's eldest daughter, Rose, testified
about the events leading up to the stay at the Battered Women's
Shelter in the summer of 1988. Rose and her mother were at home when
defendant came in and threw the groceries at them. Defendant started
to scream at his wife, jumping up and down and breaking a table with
his foot. Then defendant went into the garage and returned with a
large wooden bat. He ran upstairs after her mother, who had left the
house. The police showed up shortly thereafter and took the mother
and children to the shelter. Contrary to John's testimony, Rose
testified that her parents fought constantly in Illinois. In the
summer of 1990, her mother was sleeping in the younger daughter's
bedroom. In July, they moved to a motel.
28 July 1990, John came to the front door banging
and screaming, "Dad is trying to kill Mom." Rose called the police,
saw her brother coming back, and ran to her mother. She saw her
father enter his van, look at her, and drive away. When she reached
her mother, her mother said, "Ma Ma, shut up." "Ma Ma" is Arabic for
On cross-examination, Rose maintained that her
parents were always arguing and defendant would jump and yell at her
mother, although there were times when her parents did not argue.
Sometimes her father "would go downstairs around three o'clock in
the morning ... and just start breaking things downstairs." During
arguments between January and July 1990, her mother would say she
would quit her job if defendant would buy food the children liked to
eat. Rose also testified about the time defendant started yelling at
her in Arabic and grabbed her around her throat, saying he was going
to kill her. Rose remained angry with her father in 1988, 1989, and
1990 because he constantly disciplined the children--for example,
they were not allowed to play outside after 5:00 p.m.--and he argued
with her mother.
On redirect, Rose testified that her mother told
her to "shut up" because she was screaming, holding her mother's
hand, trying to sit her mother up, and shaking her to see if she
were still alive. Once her mother spoke, she stopped shaking her and
went for help. Rose then testified about a number of specific
instances of verbal and physical abuse by her father. When defendant
thought she had scratched his new van, he grabbed her and started to
kick her. Crying, she ran out of the house. She testified: "[H]e got
me on the floor and kicked me ... into the ground. People were
walking by and my mom pulled his leg off me." Defendant told her
mother he would kill her if she ever left him, that she would not
live without him, and that he would "f--- up our world."
On recross-examination, Rose testified that the
children were always scared of their father even though he provided
well for them. Jeane Allen, a registered nurse at the Carolinas
Medical Center, testified that she saw Mrs. Syriani at 12:24 a.m. on
29 July 1990. The victim was covered in blood and suffered from
lacerations to her arm, right side, and face. As she was being
moved, she grasped her jaw and complained, "It hurts." Monitors
showed she had difficulty breathing, so someone inserted a tube
through her nose into her lungs to facilitate breathing. On cross-examination,
Allen testified that the cuts below the victim's temple area were
superficial but the ones above were not.
Kenneth C. Martin, an attorney, testified that
the victim had asked Martin to represent her in a domestic action
against defendant in November, 1989. He prepared a complaint against
her husband, but she only decided to file it on 27 June 1990. An ex
parte domestic violence order was issued on 5 July 1990. Alice
Safar, the victim's older sister, testified that she visited her
sister at the hospital on 29 July 1990. Mrs. Syriani squeezed her
hand when Safar spoke to her. On cross-examination, Safar testified
that the marriage between her sister and defendant had been
James Sullivan, a forensic pathologist and
medical examiner, testified that he performed an autopsy on the
victim's body on 24 August 1990. Seven healed wounds were located on
her left cheek, five wounds on the left side of her neck, five
wounds on her right cheek and around her mouth, and five wounds to
the back of her right hand and arm. There were visible healed wounds
in the mouth where the victim's jaw had been fractured, and several
of her teeth had been fractured or lost. Several of the wounds had
been sutured. All of the wounds had a linear or rectangular
However, in Sullivan's opinion, the chronic
penetrating brain wound caused the victim's death. A three-inch deep
puncture wound to the right temple, to the right of her right eye,
penetrated the victim's brain, going through the right temporal lobe
and into the deep central area of her brain known as the basal
ganglia area. Such a wound would cause brain dysfunction,
unconsciousness or coma, infarct or stroke, and paralysis on the
left side of her body. There was a small rectangular defect in the
approximately one-eighth-inch-thick bone. The wound was caused by a
narrow instrument like a squared-off pick, screwdriver, or knife.
Sullivan opined that it would take a substantial amount of force to
penetrate an adult's skull. On cross-examination, Sullivan testified
that none of the arm or hand wounds were life threatening.
Charlotte Police Department Investigator Hilda M.
Griffin testified she arrived at the scene around 11:37 p.m. She
found the victim alive, sitting in the car with her head laid back.
Blood was everywhere. Mrs. Syriani tried to speak, but Griffin could
not tell what she was saying. When Griffin arrived at the fire
station where defendant had stopped for first aid, defendant had
already been arrested, and his van had been searched. He appeared
sober. There was blood all over him, but only some light scratches
on his arm and shoulder. Griffin testified that a team searched for,
but never found, the murder weapon.
Dr. Richard C. Stuntz, Jr., the first witness for
the defendant, testified that on the morning of 29 July 1990, he
treated defendant in the emergency room of Carolinas Medical Center.
Defendant's hand was bruised. There was an abrasion on his lower
left leg, and there were scratches on his nose and shoulder which
could have been caused by a fingernail. His hand was X-rayed, and he
was treated with a tetanus shot and pain medicines. On
cross-examination by the prosecutor, Stuntz testified that defendant
told him he had been assaulted by his wife.
Charles M. Stanford, a fireman, testified that
around 1:00 a.m. on 29 July 1990 defendant walked into his station.
Stanford tended to scratches on defendant's face, arms, and chest.
Defendant told him he had been in a fight. On cross-examination,
Stanford testified that defendant said his wife had assaulted him.
Walid Bouhussein testified that he lived two or three blocks from
the Syrianis and had known them almost three-and-one-half years.
Their families exchanged visits and ate together a number of times.
He had never seen any arguments between defendant and his wife. His
children felt "a warmth" toward the defendant. Both defendant and
his wife were very nice people, neither appearing violent nor
showing temper. Defendant was very hospitable, a "mild-mannered
man." On cross-examination, Bouhussein admitted that Mrs. Syriani
had told his wife that defendant mistreated her.
On redirect, Bouhussein testified that defendant
was known in the community as a very hard-working, mild-mannered man.
He did not have a reputation for violence, but he did have a
reputation for truth and veracity. Upon recross-examination, the
prosecutor questioned Bouhussein about specific instances of
defendant's misconduct toward his wife and children. Michael Carr, a
domestic law attorney, testified that he had talked with defendant
about the ex parte domestic violence order. At the 12 July 1990
hearing defendant and his wife agreed to joint counseling, but a few
days later Mrs. Syriani changed her mind and no longer wanted it.
Carr testified that defendant had wanted very much to be reconciled
with his wife.
David D. Stevens testified that he first met
defendant in 1983 when they worked at Kerr Glass in Chicago.
Defendant was a good worker. When Kerr Glass closed, Stevens moved
to Charlotte, became a supervisor at Midland Machine Corporation,
and hired defendant. During the time he knew them, he never noticed
a problem between the Syrianis. The children did not appear to be
afraid of their father. Further, defendant never argued with,
abused, or fought with any fellow employees. On cross-examination,
however, Stevens conceded that he had told defendant's current boss
not to hire defendant because he had a "terrible temper and the men
were afraid of him."
Harold Linn testified that he had been a plant
superintendent with Protective Door Manufacturing Company and had
met defendant in 1977. Defendant was looking for work, and Linn
hired him. Linn considered defendant a terrific employee, one of the
hardest workers at the plant, capable of "great, beautiful
production." Even after Linn retired and moved to North Carolina, he
maintained contact with the Syriani family. He was very close to
defendant. He respected him very much as a man who had earned
everything for himself, having come to this country with only a few
dollars in his pocket. Linn also testified that there seemed to be a
great deal of love in the Syriani household, and the Syriani
children always seemed to enjoy having the Linns visit. They were "bright
kids, very well trained. You couldn't ask for a better family." The
prosecutor cross-examined Linn with regard to specific acts of
misconduct by defendant toward his wife and children. Linn replied
that he could not believe any of those things occurred, that it was
not in defendant's nature, and that all he ever saw was that
defendant had "good and deep family devotion, the kind that most of
us would envy."
Florence Linn, Harold Linn's wife, testified that
when the Linns visited the Syriani home they never observed discord
or arguments. She never noticed abusive conduct by defendant toward
his wife or children, only "loving conduct." She thought a better
family atmosphere could not have been asked for, and that the
children were bright, healthy, and well-loved.
Odett Syriani, defendant's older sister,
testified that the Syriani children now live with her in Illinois.
Her brother's marriage had been arranged. Teresa Syriani, the
victim, had been living in New Jersey. Teresa and Odett's brother
were married in Jordan, and he followed his wife back to the United
States. Odett visited the family for six months in 1987, and later
the family visited Odett in Chicago. She did not notice any problems
between defendant and his wife. They seemed to get along very well
Defendant testified on his own behalf. Born in
Jerusalem in 1938, he had to leave school at age twelve when his
father, a laborer, became sick. He worked to help his mother support
his three sisters and two brothers. He learned the machinist trade.
He entered the Jordanian Army at age nineteen as a civilian
machinist. His sisters did not work because "their job was to finish
school, then they engage and then they get married." After leaving
the army, he worked in a garage and then as a singer on a radio
station. At the age of thirty-six he married Teresa in Amman, Jordan.
She was twenty-four. Friends had arranged the marriage. She returned
to the United States, and he followed. They lived in Washington,
D.C., where he worked as a busboy and learned English at night. They
then moved to Chicago, where defendant found work as a machinist
with Protective Door.
When Protective Door closed some six years later,
defendant went to work for Kerr Glass Manufacturing, where he stayed
almost six years. Although Mrs. Syriani had worked at Woolworth's,
she had stayed at home after the birth of Rose, their first child.
Defendant purchased a home for his family in Calumet, Illinois, near
Chicago. When Kerr Glass closed in 1986, defendant moved to North
Carolina, found a job and a place to live, and brought his family to
Charlotte. While in Chicago, he and his wife rarely argued. When
they did, it was nothing of a serious nature. They spoke Arabic in
their home. Whenever he was away, he called the family every night,
and they missed him very much. In Charlotte, Mrs. Syriani asked if
she could take a part-time job. He bought another car for her use.
Her first job was in a restaurant, but she quit and found work at a
local service station. After she began working, she changed "fast[,]
very fast." Although he loved his wife, he was not happy with the
change. Despite the problems caused by his wife's deviation from
Arabic tradition, defendant did not strike his wife. Rather, he
tried to make her "more happy."
Defendant recalled receiving papers from a lawyer
about his wife's request for a divorce. In July 1990, she came home
with police officers and told defendant he had to leave his keys and
move out of the home. Defendant packed his clothes and moved into a
hotel room. Defendant visited the neighborhood several times. He saw
John skateboarding outside and asked John to tell his mother he
wanted to talk with her. John did not respond. Another time,
defendant asked John to ask his mother for the small television
because he did not have one in his hotel room. Mrs. Syriani refused
On 27 July 1990, defendant worked his normal half
day. Late that evening, he saw his son outside the gas station. He
asked John whether he could go to lunch with him the next day. Mrs.
Syriani said John could not go with his father. On 28 July 1990,
defendant went to the gas station and asked whether John could go
out to lunch, but Mrs. Syriani refused to let the child go.
Defendant returned to his motel room. Around 8:00 p.m., he went to
the supermarket near the gas station. He did not see his wife's car
pass by and believed that his wife was still working at 11:00 p.m.
Concerned about the family's safety, he left the supermarket and
went to their home, but his wife was not there. On his way to the
gas station to ascertain why his wife was late in coming home, he
saw her car. She stopped her car, and he went up to ask about his
children and who was supervising them. She scratched his face, and
he pushed her away. She opened the driver's side door, hitting him
in the leg. He grabbed the door, and she placed the car in reverse.
He struck at her through the open window with a screwdriver he had
in his pocket, trying to get her to stop moving the car. He never
had any desire to hurt or kill his wife and remembered hitting her
only three or four times. He loved his wife very much.
On cross-examination, defendant recalled the time
in 1985 when he thought his daughter Rose had scratched his new van.
He did not drag her by the hair and kick her. He spanked her on the
"butt." It was the first spanking he had ever given her. Defendant
denied pulling hair out of his wife's head over an argument about a
washing machine. He denied knocking Sara down and kicking her in the
summer of 1989. She had lost her tennis shoe, and he only spanked
her on the bottom. He denied ever putting his hands around Rose's
throat. Defendant admitted he had hit his wife when they had lived
in Illinois and had hit her on the hand while driving in the van on
Easter Sunday, 1989. They had been arguing about lamps, and she had
put her hand on the door as if to open it. Defendant testified that
during the last three months of their marriage his wife beat him,
sometimes in front of the children. On the night she told him she
would leave him, she hit him and then called the police to escort
her and the children away from their home. Fifty minutes later,
defendant called the police and told them his wife had assaulted him
but he did not want her arrested. Defendant stated that he loved his
wife and children, and up until the end he hoped he and Teresa would
Cindy Smith testified for the State on rebuttal.
She lived next door to the Syrianis in Charlotte. Smith thought Mrs.
Syriani was a gentle person, but her husband had a violent temper.
Upon cross-examination, Smith admitted that she had never heard an
argument, that the Syrianis were a discreet family and conducted
their business within their home, but she could see that defendant
had an incredible temper "from the fear and the terror in the
children's faces and Teresa['s]." Defendant moved to dismiss at the
close of the State's evidence. The trial court denied the motion.
The jury found defendant guilty of first-degree murder based on
premeditation and deliberation.
At the capital sentencing hearing, defendant
testified that he had been out on bond for a short time, during
which he had arranged for the care of his children. He testified
that he felt "real, very terrible" about what had happened, that he
loved his wife and missed her very much, and that he was very sorry
for what he had done. He reiterated that at the time of the
confrontation with his wife, he was very emotional and upset,
feeling he was going to lose his wife and family. Finally, he
testified that in his eleven months in jail he had never been cited
for any misconduct or caused trouble for anyone.
Michael Thomas McCarn, a deputy with the
Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Department, testified that during
defendant's eleven months of incarceration he never gave anyone
trouble, was "very cooperative," and was a model prisoner.
In rebuttal, Sara Syriani, defendant's second
oldest daughter, testified for the State that on one occasion her
father threatened her mother with a pair of scissors. On Easter
Sunday, 1988, he hit her mother. Further, her father had yelled at
her, pushed her down, and kicked her. Finally, on her graduation
from sixth grade, he had yelled at the victim, followed her
upstairs, grabbed her by her hair, thrown her down the stairs, and
dragged her into the kitchen, ripping her shirt. Following the
capital sentencing hearing, the jury found one aggravating
circumstance--that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or
cruel--and eight mitigating circumstances. Among these was one
statutory mitigating circumstance, that the murder was committed
while defendant was under the influence of mental or emotional
disturbance. The remaining nonstatutory mitigating circumstances
pertain to defendant's understanding of the severity of his conduct,
defendant's demonstrated ability since his incarceration to abide by
lawful authority, defendant's history of good work habits,
defendant's history of being a good family provider, defendant's
good character or reputation in the community in which he lived,
defendant's upbringing in a different culture, and defendant's
aggravation by events following the issuance of the ex parte
domestic violence order.
Upon finding that the mitigating circumstances
were insufficient to outweigh the aggravating circumstance, and that
the aggravating circumstance was sufficiently substantial to call
for the death penalty, the jury recommended a sentence of death.
* * *
Defendant contends that the trial court erred in
overruling his objections and allowing testimony by his
children--John, Rose and Sara Syriani--about defendant's specific
instances of prior misconduct toward them, contrary to Rules 404(b)
and 403 of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence. John Syriani, age
eleven, testified for the State. During cross-examination, John
responded to many questions about how well his parents got along.
John testified that his father was a giving person and his parents
got along, but sometimes they argued. Beginning in 1990, they argued
more and more. In July 1990, defendant moved out of the house.
During redirect examination, John testified, over objection, that
when he was five, he saw his father slap his mother. Further, he
frequently heard his parents arguing and heard defendant call the
victim "whore." John further testified, without objection, that his
parents argued a lot, his father backhanded the victim during an
argument on Easter Sunday, 1989, and that in 1988, prior to the stay
at the Battered Women's Shelter, John saw her screaming and running
from the house while his father stood in the doorway.
Rose Syriani, age fourteen, testified on direct
examination, without objection, that in Illinois her parents were
constantly fighting. Sometime during the summer of 1988, she left
the house with her mother and siblings and went to the Battered
Women's Shelter. Rose recalled, without objection, that on the day
before, defendant had entered the house, thrown down the groceries
he was carrying, and started screaming at her mother. Jumping up and
down, defendant broke a table with his foot and called her and her
mother "nasty" names. Defendant left the house but returned with a
big wooden bat, with which he threatened them, trying to scare them.
Rose got in front of her mother, trying to keep her father away from
her mother. "[A]nd he was over me with a bat trying, you know,
trying to scare us." Rose recalled that defendant later chased her
mother out of the house with the bat.
During cross-examination, Rose testified that her
parents would always get into bad arguments, that defendant would
jump at her mother, start screaming for no reason, slam doors and
break tables. In the six months before her mother's death, her
parents argued about her mother's working. Then defense counsel
asked Rose, "Has he ever beat you?" She replied affirmatively. While
living in Charlotte, he started yelling at her, grabbed her by the
throat, and said he was going to kill her.
During redirect examination, Rose testified, over
objection, that defendant had also grabbed her by the hair and
kicked her sometime two or so years before. Also over objection,
Rose testified that defendant told her mother he would kill her if
she ever left him. "He told her that she would not live without him.
She wouldn't live at all." Finally, Rose recalled, over objection,
that shortly before killing her mother, defendant had said that if
her mother ever left him he would mess up the children's world.
Defendant contends that the evidence of specific
instances of misconduct toward his wife and children was elicited
from his children only to prove defendant's character, to show that
he acted in conformity therewith, or alternatively, that the
incidents were too remote in time, some more than two years prior to
the killing, or insufficiently similar in nature to defendant's
assault on their mother, to be admissible. See State v. Artis, 325
N.C. 278, 299, 384 S.E.2d 470, 481 (1989) (use of evidence under
Rule 404(b) is guided by two constraints, similarity and temporal
proximity), sentence vacated, 494 U.S. 1023, 110 S.Ct. 1466, 108
L.Ed.2d 604 (1990), on remand, 329 N.C. 679, 406 S.E.2d 827 (1991).
Defendant failed to object to the testimony about several incidents,
and our review of that testimony is limited to consideration of
whether its admission constituted plain error.
We conclude that the testimony about defendant's
misconduct toward his wife was proper under Rule 404(b) to prove
motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, absence of mistake or
accident with regard to the subsequent fatal attack upon her. Rule
404(b) provides that while "[e]vidence of other crimes, wrongs, or
acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order
to show that he acted in conformity therewith," such evidence "may
... be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive,
opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or
absence of mistake, entrapment or accident." N.C.G.S. § 8C-1, Rule
"Rule 404(b) state[s] a clear general rule of
inclusion of relevant evidence of other crimes, wrongs or acts by a
defendant, subject to but one exception requiring its exclusion if
its only probative value is to show that the defendant has the
propensity or disposition to commit an offense of the nature of the
* * *
The trial court submitted one aggravating
circumstance, that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or
cruel, N.C.G.S. § 15A-2000(e)(9) (1988), and two statutory
mitigating circumstances, that the defendant had no significant
history of prior criminal activity, N.C.G.S. § 15A-2000(f)(1)
(1988), and that the capital felony was committed while the
defendant was under the influence of mental or emotional disturbance,
N.C.G.S. § 15A-2000(f)(2) (1988).
Further, the trial court submitted
the eight requested non-statutory mitigating circumstances, as
follows: the defendant understands the severity of his conduct; the
defendant has demonstrated remorse; the defendant, since his
incarceration, has demonstrated an ability to abide by lawful
authority; the defendant has a history of good work habits; the
defendant has a history of being a good family provider; the
defendant has been a person of good character or reputation in the
community in which he lived; and any circumstance or circumstances
arising from the evidence which the jury finds to have mitigating
* * *
In conducting proportionality review, we
"determine whether the death sentence in this case is excessive or
disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases,
considering the crime and the defendant." Brown, 315 N.C. at 70, 337
S.E.2d at 829. We compare similar cases in a pool consisting of all
cases arising since the effective date of our capital punishment
statute, 1 June 1977, which have been tried as capital cases and
reviewed on direct appeal by this Court and in which the jury
recommended death or life imprisonment or in which the trial court
imposed life imprisonment after the jury's failure to agree upon a
sentencing recommendation within a reasonable period of time. State
v. Williams, 308 N.C. 47, 79, 301 S.E.2d 335, 355, cert. denied, 464
U.S. 865, 104 S.Ct. 202, 78 L.Ed.2d 177, reh'g denied, 464 U.S.
1004, 104 S.Ct. 518, 78 L.Ed.2d 704 (1983). This pool includes only
those cases found to be free of error in both phases of the trial.
State v. Jackson, 309 N.C. 26, 45, 305 S.E.2d 703, 717 (1983). We do
not, however, "necessarily feel bound ... to give a citation to
every case in the pool of 'similar cases' used for comparison."
Williams, 308 N.C. at 81, 301 S.E.2d at 356. Rather, we limit our
consideration to those cases "which are roughly similar with regard
to the crime and the defendant...." State v. Lawson, 310 N.C. 632,
648, 314 S.E.2d 493, 503 (1984), cert. denied, 471 U.S. 1120, 105
S.Ct. 2368, 86 L.Ed.2d 267 (1985).
If, after making such a
comparison, we find that juries have consistently been returning
death sentences in the similar cases, then we will have a strong
basis for concluding that a death sentence in the case under review
is not excessive or disproportionate. On the other hand if we find
that juries have consistently been returning life sentences in the
similar cases, we will have a strong basis for concluding that a
death sentence in the case under review is excessive or
Characteristics distinguishing the present case
include (1) a murder of a wife preceded by many years of physical
abuse and threats to her; (2) fear on the part of the victim; (3) a
calculated plan of attack by the defendant; (4) a senseless and
brutal stabbing in front of other people, found to be "especially
heinous, atrocious, or cruel" by the jury; (5) a period of time in
which the victim suffered great physical and psychological pain
before death; and (6) a distinct failure by the defendant to exhibit
remorse after the killing.
The jury found only one statutory
mitigating circumstance, that the crime was committed while the
defendant was under the influence of mental or emotional disturbance.
It found five non-statutory mitigating circumstances: that defendant
understands the severity of his conduct; that he has, since his
incarceration, demonstrated an ability to abide by lawful authority;
that he has a history of good work habits; that he has a history of
being a good family provider; and that he has been a person of good
character or reputation in the community in which he lived. It found
two circumstances under the catchall: that the defendant was raised
in a different culture and that he was aggravated by events
following the issuance of the ex parte domestic violence order.
Of the cases in which this Court has found the
death penalty disproportionate, only two involved the "especially
heinous, atrocious, or cruel" aggravating circumstance. State v.
Stokes, 319 N.C. 1, 352 S.E.2d 653 (1987); State v. Bondurant, 309
N.C. 674, 309 S.E.2d 170 (1983). Neither is similar to this case. In
Stokes, the defendant and several others planned to rob the victim's
place of business. During the robbery one of the assailants severely
beat the victim about the head, killing him. Stokes, 319 N.C. at 3,
352 S.E.2d at 654.
We find the dissimilarities between Stokes and
this case significant. First, the defendant in Stokes was seventeen-years-old;
defendant in this case is fifty-two-years-old. Second, the defendant
in Stokes was convicted on a felony murder theory. There was
virtually no evidence of premeditation and deliberation. In the
present case, defendant was convicted on a theory of premeditation
and deliberation, and there was substantial evidence of both
premeditation and deliberation. There was also no evidence in Stokes
showing who was the ringleader in the robbery, or that the defendant
deserved a death sentence any more than did an older confederate who
received a life sentence.
In Bondurant, the defendant shot the victim while
they were riding together in a car. Bondurant, 309 N.C. at 677, 309
S.E.2d at 173. The Court "deem [ed] it important in amelioration of
defendant's senseless act that immediately after he shot the victim,
he exhibited a concern for [the victim's] life and remorse for his
action by directing the driver of the automobile to the hospital."
Id. at 694, 309 S.E.2d at 182. He then went inside to secure medical
treatment for the victim. The defendant also spoke with the police
at the hospital, confessing that he shot the victim. In the present
case, by contrast, the defendant offered neither comfort nor help to
his wife, nor did he attempt to secure help from others. As his son
returned to his mother, after running off to seek help, defendant
yelled at him in Arabic, "Bastard." Then defendant left the scene
and drove to a nearby fire station, where he told a fireman that he
needed medical attention because he had been in a fight. His later
expressions of remorse at the trial are not comparable to the
actions taken by the defendant in Bondurant.
There are three similar cases in the pool in
which the jury recommended a sentence of death after finding as an
aggravating circumstance that the murder was especially heinous,
atrocious, or cruel. State v. Spruill, 320 N.C. 688, 360 S.E.2d 667
(1987), cert. denied, 486 U.S. 1061, 108 S.Ct. 2833, 100 L.Ed.2d 934
(1988); Huffstetler, 312 N.C. 92, 322 S.E.2d 110; State v. Martin,
303 N.C. 246, 278 S.E.2d 214, cert. denied, 454 U.S. 933, 102 S.Ct.
431, 70 L.Ed.2d 240, reh'g denied, 454 U.S. 1117, 102 S.Ct. 693, 70
L.Ed.2d 655 (1981). Further, we believe that another case--State v.
Boyd, 311 N.C. 408, 319 S.E.2d 189 (1984), cert. denied, 471 U.S.
1030, 105 S.Ct. 2052, 85 L.Ed.2d 324 (1985)--is similar, and
comparison to the present case is warranted.
In Huffstetler, defendant beat his mother-in-law
to death with a cast iron skillet after an argument. The victim had
multiple wounds on her head, neck and shoulders. Her jaw, neck,
spine and collarbone were fractured. After beating the victim, the
defendant went home to change his bloody clothes, returned to the
scene to remove the skillet, and went to visit a woman friend.
Huffstetler, 312 N.C. at 98-100, 322 S.E.2d at 115-16. The jury in
Huffstetler found as the single aggravating circumstance that the
murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel. Id. at 100, 322
S.E.2d at 116.
The jury also found three mitigating circumstances:
that the defendant's capacity to appreciate the criminality of his
conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law was
impaired; that the killing occurred contemporaneously with an
argument and by means of an instrument acquired at the scene and not
taken there; and that the defendant did not have a history of
violent conduct. Id. Notwithstanding the fact that defendant
suffered from an emotional or mental disorder, this Court concluded
that the sentence of death was not disproportionate, based on
evidence similar to that in the present case, including the brutal
nature of the killing, the lack of remorse shown by the defendant,
and the defendant's cool actions after the murder.
In Martin, the defendant followed his wife to a
neighbor's apartment and fired two shots at her. She slumped to the
floor, unable to escape. The defendant proceeded to pistol whip her
and taunt her for almost twenty-five more minutes, fired a round at
her in the presence of their young child, and then fired several
more rounds, killing her. Martin, 303 N.C. at 248, 278 S.E.2d at
216. The jury found as the single aggravating circumstance that the
murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel. Id. As in the
present case, the murder was preceded by threats against the victim,
the crime involved great physical and psychological pain and
suffering, the murder was not done in a quick and efficient manner,
and the victim was murdered in a public place in view of her child
and neighbor. There, too, the defendant suffered from a mental or
emotional disturbance. This Court found the sentence of death not
disproportionate, emphasizing the prior threats and the brutal
manner in which death was inflicted. Id. at 256, 278 S.E.2d at
In Spruill, the defendant was convicted of
killing a former girlfriend. He followed her around a nightclub and
then out into the parking lot as she left. She apparently was
frightened. He jumped into her car and stabbed her. Friends pulled
him out of the car, but he eluded their grasp and returned to his
victim, cutting her throat. She strangled on her own blood. Spruill,
320 N.C. at 690-92, 360 S.E.2d at 668-69. The jury found as the
single aggravating circumstance that the murder was especially
heinous, atrocious, or cruel, but found none of the five submitted
mitigating circumstances. Id. at 701, 360 S.E.2d at 674. This Court
upheld the sentence of death.
In Boyd, the defendant was convicted of killing
his estranged girlfriend. Defendant threatened the victim several
times after following her to a shopping center. As she tried to
leave, he pulled out a knife and stabbed her repeatedly in front of
her mother and her daughter. The victim suffered considerably before
her death. Boyd, 311 N.C. at 412-13, 319 S.E.2d at 194. The jury
found as aggravating circumstances that the murder was especially
heinous, atrocious, or cruel and that the defendant previously had
been convicted of a felony involving the use or threat of violence
to the person. Id. at 415-16, 319 S.E.2d at 195-96. The jury found
one or more unspecified mitigating circumstances of the sixteen
circumstances submitted. Id. at 416-17, 319 S.E.2d at 195-96. In
upholding the sentence of death, this Court emphasized the
overwhelming evidence of guilt, the prior threats, and the
premeditated brutality of the murder, including the suffering of the
victim. Defendant relies on four cases in which the jury recommended
life sentences as being similar to this case. State v. Madric, 328
N.C. 223, 400 S.E.2d 31 (1991); State v. Harold, 312 N.C. 787, 325
S.E.2d 219 (1985); State v. King, 311 N.C. 603, 320 S.E.2d 1 (1984);
State v. Myers, 299 N.C. 671, 263 S.E.2d 768 (1980).
In Harold, King and Myers, the killings were by
gunshot, and there was not the evidence of excessive brutality or
suffering that there is in the present case. In Harold, the
defendant entered the house through an unlocked window and chased
the victim, his former girlfriend, through the house and out into a
neighboring yard. The defendant caught the victim and threw her to
the ground, then stood over her and shot her at point blank range as
she begged for her life. Harold, 312 N.C. at 789, 325 S.E.2d at
220-21. There was evidence, however, that defendant suffered from
paranoid schizophrenia. Id. at 790, 325 S.E.2d at 221.
In King, the
defendant shot his former girlfriend with a pistol and again with a
rifle. There was evidence of an argument about a truck purchased by
the defendant but registered in the victim's name, and apparently no
evidence that the victim feared the defendant. King, 311 N.C. at
605-07, 320 S.E.2d at 3-4. In Myers, there was evidence that the
defendant had physically and verbally abused his wife, speaking to
her sometimes as if she were a child and pulling her hair or
ordering her to bed without her clothes. Further, there was evidence
that the defendant had threatened the victim and that she feared him.
Myers, 299 N.C. at 674-76, 263 S.E.2d at 770-72. On the day of the
killing, the defendant accosted his wife and forced her to drive
while he held a gun to her head. The victim pushed the gun away, but
the defendant regained control of the gun and fired, killing her
with that shot. Id. at 678, 263 S.E.2d at 773.
In Madric, the defendant was convicted of
stabbing a pregnant mother to death and dragging her body out of her
car and into the woods beside defendant's driveway. Madric, 328 N.C.
at 225, 400 S.E.2d at 33. However, the murder was not planned but
was committed while the defendant was committing robbery and
kidnapping. Further, the victim was a stranger to the defendant. The
murder was not in public or in front of family or friends, and there
was no evidence of prior threats to the victim or history of
violence by the defendant toward the victim. These circumstances
distinguish these cases from the present case. There is another case
that is facially similar to the present case, State v. Bearthes, 329
N.C. 149, 405 S.E.2d 170, in which the jury recommended a life
sentence. In Bearthes, the defendant stabbed his estranged wife
through the open window of her car in front of at least four
witnesses and two of their children. The victim suffered thirty-four
wounds, twenty-three of which were life threatening, and died soon
after the attack. Bearthes, 329 N.C. at 152-53, 162, 405 S.E.2d at
The record shows that the jury found the single
aggravating circumstance that the murder was "especially heinous,
atrocious, or cruel." It found two statutory mitigating
circumstances: that the defendant had no significant history of
prior criminal activity, and that the capital felony was committed
while the defendant was under the influence of mental or emotional
disturbance. It also found five non-statutory mitigating
circumstances: that the defendant was seeking marriage and religious
counseling at the time of the offense; that his conduct in jail
between the offense date and the sentencing date had been exemplary;
that he voluntarily surrendered himself at the sheriff's department
and thereafter voluntarily confessed both orally and in writing to
his involvement in the offense; that he had exhibited religious
beliefs before his incarceration; and that he had been a good
neighbor. We find the dissimilarities between Bearthes and this case
significant, however. InBearthes, the defendant had not physically
or verbally abused his wife or threatened her directly.
There was no
evidence that the attack was anything but unexpected by the victim.
She had just rolled down her window to give the defendant directions
to an outing. Finally, there was evidence that the victim died
within five minutes of the attack, that the defendant was in shock
and could not remember the attack and, seeing blood on his hands,
asked his son to drive him to the sheriff's department. The
defendant "asked [the deputies] about his wife because he was
concerned she might be hurt." Id. at 154, 405 S.E.2d at 173. These
facts distinguish Bearthes from the present case.
We find that Huffstetler, Martin, Spruill and
Boyd are the cases in the pool most comparable to this case. In
light of these cases, we cannot say that the death sentence in this
case was excessive or disproportionate, considering both the crime
and the defendant. We hold that the defendant received a fair trial
and sentencing hearing, free of prejudicial error. In comparing this
case to similar cases in which the death penalty was imposed, and in
considering both the crime and the defendant, we cannot hold as a
matter of law that the death penalty was disproportionate or
excessive. Robbins, 319 N.C. at 529, 356 S.E.2d at 317. NO ERROR.
Syriani v. Polk,
118 Fed.Appx. 706 (4th Cir. 2004) (Habeas)
Background: Petitioner was convicted by North
Carolina jury of capital murder and sentenced to death. After
unsuccessfully challenging his convictions in state court on direct
review and in state habeas proceedings, petitioner sought federal
habeas relief. The United States District Court for the Western
District of North Carolina, at Charlotte, Graham C. Mullen, Chief
Judge, denied petition. Petitioner appealed.
Holdings: The Court of Appeals, Traxler, Circuit
Judge, held that:
(1) counsel's alleged failure to further investigate and present
mitigating evidence of defendant's cultural background and social
history did not constitute ineffective assistance, and
(2) counsel's alleged failure to present mitigating evidence of
defendant's mental health problems did not constitute ineffective
TRAXLER, Circuit Judge.
Elias Hanna Syriani was convicted by a North Carolina jury of the
capital murder of his wife and sentenced to death. After
unsuccessfully challenging his convictions in state court on direct
review and in state habeas proceedings, Syriani filed a petition for
writ of habeas corpus in federal district court. See 28 U.S.C.A. §
2254 (West 1994 & Supp.2004). The district court denied his
application for relief, but granted his certificate of
appealability. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.
* * *
In June 1990, Teresa told Syriani that she
intended to divorce him. Syriani, in accordance with Arabic
traditions, wrote to Teresa's brothers in Jerusalem and Minnesota
for help, but to no avail. There was evidence that Syriani
threatened to kill Teresa if she ever left him. Nevertheless, Teresa
took the children and temporarily moved into a motel. She then
obtained a court order requiring Syriani to leave the marital home
and to stay away from her and the children.
According to Syriani,
Teresa appeared at their home with two policemen and the order and
told him that he had to relinquish his house keys and leave. Syriani
testified that he took his clothes and began living in motels.
Teresa rebuffed Syriani's attempts at reconciliation and rejected
his request that they seek marital counseling.
According to Syriani,
in the late evening hours of July 28, 1990, he was watching the road
that Teresa and John would travel home from her job at the gas
station, and he became worried because Teresa's car had not yet
passed. Thinking that he had missed her, he drove to the
neighborhood, but he did not see her car. As he was driving out, he
saw Teresa's car pull into the neighborhood.
He testified that he
stopped his van to talk to her, but he denied blocking her path of
travel. According to Syriani, Teresa stopped her car as well and he
approached the driver's side window, which was down. Syriani
testified that he was worried and hurt. He testified that he asked
Teresa, "With whom did you leave my kids, by themselves?" J.A. 815.
According to Syriani, Teresa did not like what he said and scratched
his face. He pushed her away from his face, but Teresa opened the
car door and hit him with enough force to cause an injury to his leg.
According to Syriani, he grabbed the door, but by that time she had
put the car in reverse. He testified that he had a "screwdriver in [his]
pocket, and [he] hit her from the window." J.A. 817.
testified that he was moving with the door, with the car moving in
reverse. He testified that he did not intend to hurt her or kill her,
and only remembers hitting her three or four times.
In addition to presenting the testimony of
Syriani regarding the events of that night, Syriani's counsel called
a number of neighbors and co-workers who testified that Syriani was
a gentle, hard-working man, with a good nature and character, and
that the Syriani household was a loving and happy one.
argument, trial counsel urged the jury to find that Syriani and
Teresa, embroiled in an emotional divorce situation, had become
engaged in an argument, and that Syriani had responded reasonably
and in self-defense to his being scratched, hit by the door, and
carried backwards down the street by the moving car.
He argued that
there was no evidence of premeditation and deliberation on Syriani's
part, which was necessary to convict Syriani of first degree murder,
and that there was also no malice, which was necessary to convict
Syriani of second degree murder. At most, counsel argued, the jury
should consider Syriani's actions as voluntary manslaughter because
he had responded to Teresa's attack and inflicted the fatal wound,
without malice, but in the heat of passion. The jury found Syriani
guilty of first-degree murder on the basis of premeditation and
During the penalty phase of the trial, counsel
again presented Syriani as a hardworking immigrant who lost control
of his emotions on the night that he stabbed his wife. Counsel
primarily relied upon the testimony of the neighbors and
acquaintances who had testified during the guilt phase as to
Syriani's good character and work ethic.
Counsel also presented
evidence that Syriani, while released on bond, did not attempt to
flee the country and, instead, took steps to ensure that his
children were cared for and given a home with his mother and sister
Odeet, who had by that time also immigrated to the United States and
settled in the Chicago area.
Counsel also presented the testimony of
a Mecklenburg County jailor that Syriani had adjusted well to
incarceration and had been a model prisoner. Syriani testified
during the penalty phase as well. He testified that he loved his
wife and that, at the time of the assault, he was very emotional and
upset; he felt as if he were losing his wife and children and had
lost control of his family. He testified that he was deeply sorry
for what he had done.
In rebuttal, the State presented the testimony of
Sara Syriani, the couple's middle daughter. Sara testified that she
witnessed her father chase her mother with a pair of scissors during
one argument, backhand her mother in the ear while they were riding
in the car on another occasion, and pull her mother down the stairs
by her hair and rip her shirt on yet another occasion. She also
testified that Syriani had pushed her down and kicked her while she
was looking for a shoe that she had lost.
At the conclusion of the penalty phase, the jury
found as an aggravating factor that the murder of Teresa was
especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel. The jury also found eight
mitigating circumstances, but unanimously decided that the
aggravating circumstance outweighed these mitigating circumstances
and recommended that Syriani be sentenced to death. On direct
appeal, the North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed Syriani's
conviction and death sentence, see Syriani, 428 S.E.2d at 121, and
the United States Supreme Court denied Syriani's petition for writ
of certiorari, see Syriani v. North Carolina, 510 U.S. 948, 114 S.Ct.
392, 126 L.Ed.2d 341 (1993).
After his conviction, new counsel was appointed
to represent Syriani in his efforts to obtain post-conviction
relief. Syriani filed his motion for appropriate relief ("MAR") in
the North Carolina Superior Court alleging, inter alia, that his
trial counsel had provided constitutionally deficient legal
assistance during the penalty phase of his trial by failing to
investigate and present mitigating evidence of Syriani's cultural
and social background in Palestine and Jordan and by failing to
investigate and present mitigating evidence of mental illness. The
state court granted Syriani's request for funds to hire an
investigator and a translator and granted Syriani's request for an
independent psychological and psychiatric examination.
At the conclusion of an evidentiary hearing, the
state MAR court ruled that Syriani failed to prove that his
counsel's representation during the penalty phase was deficient and,
in any event, that Syriani had received "a fair trial that produced
reliable results." J.A. 2425. Consequently, the state court denied
Syriani relief, and the North Carolina Supreme Court denied review.
See State v. Syriani, 350 N.C. 384, 536 S.E.2d 319 (1999).
then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the district
court pursuant to 28 U.S.C.A. § 2254, again alleging ineffective
assistance of counsel. The district court denied the petition, but
granted Syriani's application for a certificate of appealability,
see 28 U.S.C.A. § 2253 (West Supp.2004), as to Syriani's claim that
he received ineffective assistance of counsel during the penalty
phase of the trial. This appeal followed.
* * *
We begin with Syriani's claim that trial counsel
unreasonably failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence
of his cultural background and social history. Syriani asserts that,
had counsel conducted a thorough investigation into the first thirty-seven
years of his life in Palestine and Jordan, they would have uncovered
a number of family members, friends, and co-workers in Jordan who
were willing to testify about his difficult life before he
immigrated to the United States.
Syriani did not testify at the
state MAR hearing about his background. Rather, through summaries of
interviews conducted by others of these family members and
acquaintances, and through interviews that Syriani had with the
"cultural expert" retained on his behalf for the MAR proceeding,
Syriani presented a number of additional facts about his life in
Palestine and Jordan.
According to this additional evidence,
Syriani's home in Palestine was annexed to the Israeli state when
Syriani was twelve years old. Although Syriani did not directly live
in a war zone, the Israelis rounded up all the men in his village,
including his father, and took them to concentration camps. A year
or two later, his father was released to return home and the family
moved to Jordan where one of his sisters already lived.
claims that his father was unable to work and that his father was
laughed at by others in the community. No one respected his father
in Jordan, not even his mother, who was cruel and indifferent to him.
According to Syriani, "She used to hit him with her shoe just like
my wife [Teresa] used to raise her hand against me in the last year
of our marriage." J.A. 2300. The family was socially isolated as a
Syriani also suspected that his mother had extramarital
affairs during these years, which "shamed him deeply." J.A. 2301.
Syriani and his family lived in extreme poverty and his mother
abused him physically and emotionally. According to Syriani, he wet
the bed until he was fifteen years old, and his mother humiliated
him for this problem.
In addition to the claim that counsel was
ineffective for failing to uncover and present this additional
personal history, Syriani asserts that trial counsel was ineffective
for failing to retain a "cultural expert" to provide the jury with
testimony about the fundamental differences between Arabic and
Western culture, Syriani's difficulties with his cultural
assimilation into this country, and how this difficulty affected his
behavior on the night of the attack. As a result of these failures,
Syriani asserts that the jury was "unable to understand the
influence of culture on [his] ideas, thinking process, ideals and
methods of communication." J.A. 1161. An expert in Arabic culture
and history, Syriani claims, would have been able to explain and
place in context this clash of American and Arab culture.
Post-conviction counsel took this step, retaining
Dr. Akram Khater, Ph.D., a history professor from North Carolina
State University who specializes in Arabic history and culture, to
evaluate Syriani. Dr. Akram conducted interviews with Syriani and
developed a social and family history, and presented this evidence
to the state MAR court by affidavit. In particular, Dr. Akram
provided more detailed information about the norms and traditions in
the Arab culture and, in particular, the expectations and accepted
behaviors of men and women in a traditional Arabic marriage, which
Syriani strove to maintain with Teresa.
In death penalty cases, defense attorneys are
required to undertake a reasonable investigation into possible
mitigating evidence that can be presented during the penalty phase.
See Wiggins, 539 U.S. at 521-23. "[C]ounsel has a duty to make
reasonable investigations or to make a reasonable decision that
makes particular investigations unnecessary. In any ineffectiveness
case, a particular decision not to investigate must be directly
assessed for reasonableness in all the circumstances, applying a
heavy measure of deference to counsel's judgments." Strickland, 466
U.S. at 691. "[T]here is a presumption that 'counsel's conduct falls
within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.' "
Byram v. Ozmint, 339 F.3d 203, 209 (4th Cir.2003) (quoting
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689).
"[I]n deciding whether [counsel] exercised
reasonable professional judgment," we "focus on whether the
investigation supporting counsel's decision not to introduce
mitigating evidence of [defendant's] background was itself
reasonable." Wiggins, 539 U.S. at 522-23 (internal alteration and
quotation marks omitted). "Strickland does not require counsel to
investigate every conceivable line of mitigating evidence no matter
how unlikely the effort would be to assist the defendant at
sentencing. Nor does Strickland require defense counsel to present
mitigating evidence at sentencing in every case." Wiggins, 539 U.S.
at 533. Also, [t]he reasonableness of counsel's actions may be
determined or substantially influenced by the defendant's own
statements or actions. Counsel's actions are usually based, quite
properly, on informed strategic choices made by the defendant and on
information supplied by the defendant. In particular, what
investigation decisions are reasonable depends critically on such
information. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 691.
We do not view counsel's investigation of
Syriani's background and social history as constitutionally
deficient. First, trial counsel's investigation into Syriani's
background was not rendered unreasonable because they failed to
locate and interview witnesses in the country of Jordan. Syriani was
represented at trial by Mr. John Plumides, who acted as lead counsel,
and Mr. Andrew Trakas, who was second chair counsel. Both were
experienced trial counsel, particularly Mr. Plumides who had tried
capital cases before. At the time of the murder, Syriani was not a
recent immigrant to the United States. He and Teresa married in
1974, and he immigrated to this country within several weeks of the
marriage. He learned to speak English, and had been living, working,
and raising children in the United States for fifteen years when he
attacked his wife. Thus, there was no reason for counsel to believe
that he would be unable to present a competent mitigation case
without traveling to Palestine and Jordan, or sending an
investigator there, to interview family members, friends, and co-workers
who had known Syriani more than a decade earlier.
Second, Syriani's counsel undertook reasonable
efforts to investigate Syriani's cultural background. Mr. Trakas
testified that he met with Syriani on a regular basis prior to
trial, at least once or twice a week, to discuss various aspects of
his case, including an explanation of the two-tier approach to a
capital trial. Mr. Plumides also visited Syriani on a less frequent
basis. Counsel testified that they had a good rapport with Syriani
and no difficulty communicating with him.
Counsel also obtained and
presented information from Syriani's sister Odeet, and interviewed
Syriani's brother when he visited from Jordan. Finally, it is clear
that Syriani's counsel understood and adequately presented the
cultural aspects of the case, and successfully highlighted their
mitigating value. In particular, Mr. Plumides demonstrated that he
fully understood Syriani's marriage arrangement and the cultural
differences between his life in Jordan and his life in the United
States. [FN4] Counsel presented information about Syriani's unique
cultural background to the jury, through the testimony of Syriani
and Odeet. And, counsel referred to the differences between Arabic
and American culture during his closing argument to the jury,
including reminding the jury of Syriani's unique difficulty in
coping with his wife's adoption of more American behaviors, such as
driving, working outside the home, and wearing makeup and a more
americanized wardrobe. [FN5]
FN4. Indeed, Mr. Plumides had a unique
understanding of them. Mr. Plumides's parents had immigrated to the
United States and were the product of an arranged marriage.
FN5. For example, counsel pointed out that
Syriani had "lived as a very poor man and worked his way up to his
own home," that "[h]e lived in one room in Jerusalem with all his
family, all his brothers and sister[s], and his ill father and
mother," that "he went to work when he was 12 years old," and that
he supported his family and "created a very distinctive sense of
pride in his life style." J.A. 895. He highlighted the fact that the
changes in Teresa prompted Syriani's actions that night, that "[s]he
became [a]mericanized" and "started wearing lipstick." J.A. 905. He
reminded the jury that, "in their land and their customs, a woman's
place was in the home," that "divorce in [Syriani's country] was
five percent," "[t]hat the home was secure," and that "[t]hey didn't
have divorce." J.A. 905. And, he highlighted the fact that Syriani "couldn't
understand why his wife was leaving him, of all things." J.A. 906.
In sum, we cannot say that trial counsel's
failure to travel to Jordan to interview family members and friends
of Syriani from years before, or failure to retain a "cultural
expert" to testify as to the effect his Arabic heritage might have
had upon his actions during the marriage and on the night he
inflicted the fatal wounds upon his wife, constituted ineffective
assistance of counsel. Counsel interviewed Syriani and his sister
living in the United States, as well as a sibling who visited from
Jordan, and presented a great deal of evidence of Syriani's
background to the jury. The information presented did not include
the details contained in Dr. Khater's affidavit. However, there is
no claim that Syriani, Odeet, or the visiting brother conveyed this
background information to counsel when they were interviewed. And,
it appears that the vast majority of this "undiscovered" evidence
came from Syriani himself when he was interviewed by Dr. Akram in
preparation for the MAR. In this regard, we note that, while Syriani
did not testify at the MAR hearing, he presented no such history in
his testimony during the guilt phase or penalty phase. Indeed, in at
least one very important respect, Syriani's testimony at trial
conflicts with the background offered through the summaries of other
witnesses at the MAR hearing. FN6. Syriani did not relate that his
father had been taken prisoner and ridiculed after his release,
causing him to have to leave school at age twelve to work and
support the family in Jordan. Rather, Syriani testified when he was
twelve years old, his father developed cancer and could no longer
work and, because Syriani was the oldest boy, he had to quit school
to support the family.
However, even if we were to conclude that counsel
should have done more in their investigation of this aspect of the
case, we would affirm the denial of habeas relief because Syriani
failed to demonstrate that there is a reasonable probability that
the outcome of the penalty phase would have been different. Counsel
presented evidence of Syriani's background and cultural differences
and their effect upon his actions that night. The jury unanimously
found, as a mitigating factor, that Syriani was raised in a foreign
culture. Clearly, the jurors knew and understood the cultural issues
involved in this case, and weighed them, but concluded that this did
not outweigh the aggravating nature of the attack.
We turn now to Syriani's assertion that he
received ineffective assistance of counsel because counsel failed to
investigate and present mitigating evidence that he suffered from
various mental health problems related to his background and his
problems with cultural assimilation in this country. Prior to trial,
counsel arranged for Syriani to undergo a competency examination at
Dorothea Dix Hospital by Dr. James G. Groce.
Syriani was admitted on
October 11, 1990, and remained there until his discharge on October
24, 1990. At the conclusion of the evaluation, Dr. Groce determined
that Syriani suffered from an adjustment disorder with depressed
mood, but noted no other psychiatric diagnoses. According to Dr.
Groce, Syriani was "frustrated, jealous and depressed during the
period of time that he was separated from his wife," but that "he
would have been able to understand the nature and quality of his
actions and the difference in right and wrong at the time in
question." J.A. 2158.
Dr. Groce related that his evaluation and
diagnosis were based on "interviews with the patient, the result of
physical examination, laboratory studies, observation of his ward
behavior during the time that he was in the hospital and information
received from the patient's attorney, the clerk of court, the county
jail, the patient's mother and an investigating detective." J.A.
2156. At no time did Dr. Groce contact trial counsel or request any
additional information that may have been necessary to complete the
Mr. Plumides testified that, after reviewing the
report and independently researching the diagnosis, he made the
decision not to request additional evaluations or call Dr. Groce as
a witness. Given Dr. Groce's opinions regarding Syriani's ability to
understand his actions that night, he believed that Dr. Groce's
testimony regarding Syriani's depressed nature would hurt Syriani
more than help him at trial.
Syriani contends that trial counsel was
ineffective and that this decision not to do more was based on an
incomplete investigation. Specifically, Syriani points to the fact
that trial counsel did not contact Dr. Groce to discuss his
findings, request the entirety of the file from Dorothea Dix
Hospital, or provide Dr. Groce with any information concerning
Syriani's cultural background. Syriani also points to the fact that
trial counsel was aware that, shortly after Syriani was arrested, he
told his son John that his "brain had blown up," told his daughter
that he had "gone crazy," and told another individual that he "had
lost control" at the time of the crime. J.A. 2114-15. Syriani
asserts that competent counsel, armed with this information, would
have requested additional information and evaluation from Dr. Groce
and would have asked Dr. Groce to explore potential mitigating
circumstances related to Syriani's mental condition, or obtained a
separate psychological evaluation for purposes of uncovering
To demonstrate the mitigating evidence that such
an investigation would have uncovered, Syriani points to the
evaluation performed by Dr. Robert Rollins, who is also with
Dorothea Dix Hospital, in preparation for the post-conviction
hearing. Dr. Rollins reviewed the records of Dr. Groce, an affidavit
prepared by Dr. Khater concerning Syriani's cultural background, and
interviewed Syriani on two occasions. According to Dr. Rollins,
Syriani had (1) mild symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder
related to events in his childhood and to "the distressing feelings
regarding the death of his wife," J.A.2010; (2) rigid beliefs and
behavior which he characterized as a personality disorder that
narrowed the range of choices available to Syriani when dealing with
a situation and which affected his judgment and behavior control;
and (3) an adjustment disorder or depression related to the
disintegration of his family. In addition, Dr. Rollins noted that,
while not separate diagnoses, Syriani was having relational problems
and a cultural problem reflected by his view of the appropriate
roles of husband and wife and his inability to cope with the changes
in this relationship. According to Dr. Rollins, "Syriani felt very
strongly that he was responsible for the behavior of his wife and
children and he was actually quite ashamed that they didn't behave
as he wished." J.A.2025.
Syriani argues that if trial counsel had
requested a mental health evaluation for purposes of mitigation
evidence, as opposed to just for a competency determination, they
would have discovered these mental and emotional problems and, had
they presented this evidence to the jury, there is a reasonable
probability that the jury would not have sentenced Syriani to death.
The state MAR court rejected this claim of
deficient performance, ruling that trial counsel had arranged to
have Syriani examined by a mental health expert, evaluated that
report along with the information provided by Syriani, and made the
"reasonable strategic decision not to call Dr. Groce as a witness
because they considered that he would do more harm to their case
than good." J.A. 2374. Having received an opinion that Syriani
suffered only from an " 'adjustment disorder with depressed mood' "
and "having used their own professional judgment in evaluating
defendant's statements to them and the evidence against defendant,"
the state MAR court concluded that "trial counsel had no obligation
to shop around for additional opinions of mental health experts."
J.A. 2374 (internal quotation marks omitted).
In addition, the state
MAR court ruled that Syriani had failed to demonstrate that he was
prejudiced by the alleged deficiencies of counsel. The district
court ruled that trial counsel's representation was not deficient
performance and, consequently, did not address the second prong of
In his testimony, Dr. Groce made it clear that he
was only retained to prepare a competency evaluation, and that he
was at no time charged with the task of evaluating Syriani's mental
health status for purposes of mitigation evidence. Had he been
retained to perform the latter task, Dr. Groce testified, he would
have ordered an additional battery of tests. Accordingly, we are not
convinced that trial counsel's efforts to uncover this type of
mitigating evidence was reasonable.
However, we need not decide
whether the state court's determination to the contrary was an
unreasonable application of the first prong of Strickland because we
are satisfied that there is no reasonable probability that, had the
jury been aware of the information presented by Dr. Rollins during
the MAR proceeding, the result of Syriani's sentencing proceeding
would have been different.
To establish a Sixth Amendment violation, Syriani
was required to show that any failure on the part of his trial
counsel prejudiced his defense. To establish this necessary
prejudice, Syriani had to demonstrate " 'that there is a reasonable
probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the
result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable
probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in
the outcome.' " Wiggins, 539 U.S. at 534 (quoting Strickland, 466
U.S. at 694). In the death penalty context, to assess prejudice, the
court "reweigh[s] the evidence in aggravation against the totality
of the available mitigating evidence." Id. Prejudice requires "a
reasonable probability that at least one juror would have struck a
different balance." Id. at 537.
The aggravating evidence in this case was
particularly compelling. While subject to a protective order arising
from earlier incidents of domestic violence, Syriani blocked his
wife and son's path to their home with his van, approached the
vehicle, and chased Teresa as she attempted to get away from him by
placing the car in reverse. He then opened the driver's door, and
brutally stabbed his wife with a screwdriver in the head and face,
while their ten-year-old son was in the passenger seat and over his
attempts to protect his mother from this brutal onslaught.
evidence revealed that the assault was prolonged and calculated.
After John ran for help, he and his friend returned to help his
mother, only to find Syriani still stabbing Teresa. According to Mr.
Wilson, at one point Syriani crossed the street, returned to his
van, fumbled with something, and then returned to Teresa's vehicle
to continue the attack. And, Mr. O'Connor's testimony suggests that
Syriani intended to go back a third time to resume his assault upon
Teresa, but changed his mind when he saw O'Connor approaching
Teresa's vehicle. As noted by the North Carolina Supreme Court, the
pain and suffering to Teresa and her children was extraordinary:
[D]efendant stabbed his victim twenty-eight
times. While many of the wounds were to [Teresa's] face and neck,
several were to her arms and hands, suggesting that she tried to
defend herself or ward off the blows. Further, one wound penetrated
her brain three inches, causing hemorrhaging and swelling in the
brain. Another blow fractured her jaw and several of her teeth.
These blows did not cause immediate death.
The victim was able to
communicate with her daughter Rose moments after the attack, and, as
well, with the attending emergency room assistant upon her arrival
at the hospital. Further, a tube was placed through her nose to her
lungs to assist her breathing. She died twenty-eight days later as a
result of the three-inch puncture wound to her brain, after having
suffered stroke, infarct or paralysis.
Defendant correctly assesses
the record as devoid of expert testimony that his victim suffered "inordinate"
pain, but notwithstanding, the jury could reasonably infer from this
evidence that the victim sustained and endured agonizing physical
pain before becoming unconscious or comatose. Further, this evidence
supports a finding that the killing was excessively brutal and
conscienceless, pitiless and unnecessarily torturous....
Additionally, the evidence that defendant had
abused his wife to the extent that she had left the house with her
children; that he had threatened to kill her should she ever leave
him; that only two weeks prior to the killing she had an ex parte
domestic violence order served on defendant, requiring him to leave
their home, and that defendant had tried to talk to her or the
children, which overtures she had rebuffed, suggests that she feared
her husband. The jury could reasonably infer that the victim, upon
seeing defendant's van that night, being blocked by the van,
observing his getting out and shaking his fist at her, and then
attacking her as she tried to reverse the car, suffered and endured
psychological torture or anxiety not only for herself but for her
young son who was sitting beside her trying to stop his father.
Syriani, 428 S.E.2d at 141-42 (citations omitted).
For his part, Syriani, after brutally assaulting
his wife in the presence of his son, called his son a bastard as he
left, drove to a nearby fire station to seek medical treatment for
his minor injuries, requested that the police take him to the
emergency room to be treated for his minor injuries when they
arrived at the fire station to arrest him, and told the firemen and
the emergency room physicians that Teresa had assaulted him. Weighed
against this aggravating evidence, Syriani advances evidence that he
was raised in poverty, suffered from mild post-traumatic stress
disorder (caused by his upbringing or his murder of his wife or
both), depression, and difficulty coping with the americanization of
his wife and break-up of their marriage, which Dr. Rollins
classifies as "personality disorders" affecting his ability to
control his behavior.
The evidence presented at the MAR hearing was
more extensive than that presented during the trial. But it is not
so drastically different from that which the jury actually did
consider and weigh as to lead us to conclude that the result might
have been different. As a result of the efforts of defense counsel
presented with a very difficult case, the jurors were made aware
that Syriani was raised in a unique cultural setting and that he was
subject to mental and emotional disturbances at the time of the
Indeed, the jury unanimously found, as mitigating factors,
that Syriani had been raised in a different culture and that he
committed the murder while he was under the influence of mental or
emotional disturbance. Seven members of the jury found, as a
mitigating factor, that Syriani was aggravated by events following
the issuance of the ex parte domestic order. And, several of the
jurors found that Syriani understood the severity of his conduct,
had demonstrated an ability to abide by lawful authority since his
incarceration, had a history of good work habits, had a history of
being a good family provider, and had been a person of good
character or reputation in the community in which he lived.
unanimously rejected, however, as mitigating circumstances that
Syriani had no significant history of prior criminal activity, and
that Syriani had demonstrated remorse for his actions. [FN7] FN7.
Syriani denied having ever abused his children or his wife, and
attempted to convey to the jury a scenario in which he "snapped" out
of concern for his wife and children and fear that he was losing his
family in the divorce. His children testified about their father's
history of having a violent temper and his abuse of their mother and
the children, as well as of the incident when the police took Teresa
and the children to a battered women's shelter. Trial counsel
introduced evidence that Syriani had no prior criminal convictions,
either in his home country or in the United States. However, the
State argued to the jury that they should reject this mitigating
factor based upon the testimony that Syriani had been abusive to his
In short, Syriani's jurors were obviously aware
of the cultural and social aspects underlying the murder, as well as
the emotional and mental deficiencies associated with it, and
unanimously found these factors to be mitigating in character. Yet,
weighed against the aggravating evidence, they unanimously found
that these mitigating circumstances, coupled with any others, did
not outweigh the aggravating circumstances and recommended a
sentence of death.
In light of the totality of the evidence
presented at trial and in the state habeas proceeding, we conclude
that Syriani has failed to demonstrate a reasonable probability that,
but for counsel's failure to present the additional evidence of
Syriani's cultural, social, and mental background, his sentence
would have been different. Syriani, therefore, has failed to
establish that he suffered prejudice from the alleged deficient
conduct of counsel.
For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the district
court's denial of Syriani's petition for writ of habeas corpus.