Suit: Teen charged in mom's death had been hurt in crash
Pontiac – A Farmington Hills teenager charged with killing his mother last year was involved in a 2015 traffic crash that left him with closed head injuries, memory loss and other impairments, according to a recent lawsuit filed in Oakland County Circuit Court.
Muhammad Altantawi, 17, is charged with first-degree murder in the August 2017 slaying of his mother, Nada Huranieh, who investigators believe was smothered, then dropped out a third-floor window of their Farmington Hills mansion to make the death look like an accident.
The teenager’s parents were in the midst of a divorce, according to court records. His father, Bassel Altantawi, unsuccessfully tried last month to have his son put on bond and released to his custody pending trial.
While mental competency is not an issue in the teen's trial, proceedings have been delayed by multiple defense motions over evidence in the case, including home security video obtained by police and admissions made by Altantawi.
At a hearing Monday, attorneys will continue arguments before Circuit Judge Martha Anderson on whether Altantawi's statements should be permitted as evidence.
Defense attorney Michael Schiano said Friday the evidentiary hearing would focus on the admissibility of statements made by his client to police detectives. An earlier hearing dealt with consent-to-search issues and investigators obtaining a home security video.
“I will be questioning an officer about how the interviews were handled,” said Schiano, who added as many as five witnesses are expected to be called Monday.
One issue has been whether Altantawi’s statements qualify as confessions or admissions. In a court filing, the prosecutor’s office has stressed they are not confessions but part of a circumstantial case that point to Altantawi as the person responsible for his mother’s death.
Schiano said he was aware of the 2015 auto accident in which Altantawi suffered serious injuries but did not know a lawsuit had been filed in connection with the crash.
“I suspect those injuries suffered and his physical stature will be part of our defense but you will have to wait and see how,” he said.
Schiano said he has visited Altantawi at Oakland County Children’s Village and described his demeanor as “nervous” and said he has back issues.
“He is a teenager – 16 when he was arrested – and has been in custody for over a year,” the defense attorney said. “He is understandably afraid. And more than anything wants the trial to start.”
The trial date, due to attorney substitutions and defense motions, has been moved to Dec. 3.
Oakland County chief assistant prosecuting attorney Paul Walton said his office was aware of the auto negligence lawsuit.
“It’s unclear what, if any, impact it might have on the case moving forward,” said Walton. “It hasn’t been raised as an issue yet. We will have to wait and see whether his attorneys will try and use it in some way in his defense.”
The auto negligence lawsuit, filed by Bassel Altantawi on his son’s behalf, seeks damages against Hemlata Sumanray Raval, 59, of Farmington Hills, in connection with a crash on Nov. 2, 2015. According to the suit, Raval turned from Enterprise Court onto northbound Halstead Road and into the path of a vehicle in which Altantawi was a passenger. His mother was driving the vehicle.
Raval could not be reached for comment.
The lawsuit, which is assigned to Oakland Circuit Judge Leo Bowman, alleges Altantawi suffered serious injuries “and will in the future further suffer and/or may permanently suffer mental anguish, pain and suffering, injuries and limitations including serious impairment of body function and/or permanent or serious disfigurement and aggravation of pre-existing conditions…”
Listed among injuries were “closed head injury with loss of consciousness and memory,” and fractures of the vertebra, sternum, and bone in the right hand, injury to left shoulder and upper arm.
The attorney in the auto negligence lawsuit, Daniel J. Schouman, said he is not involved in the criminal case and that his lawsuit has nothing to do with it.
“The statute of limitations on filing a lawsuit for injuries is three years and is due to expire soon,” said Schouman. “He has every right to seek damages to which he is entitled, regardless of other circumstances.”
When asked if the traffic crash injuries might factor in Altantawi’s defense, Schouman said “I can’t speak to that and need to stay away from a criminal case in which I am not involved.”
While it's not stated in the complaint, defense attorneys could argue the injuries may explain Altantawi’s conflicting statements to detectives and also show he may have been physically incapable of overpowering his mother, a 35-year-old physical fitness trainer, and lift her body through a window to her death.
There were no signs of forced entry in the home, which was occupied by Altantawi, his mother, and two sisters, 14 and 12 years old.
Altantawi initially told investigators he was not present when his mother fell and only learned of her death when he awoke to screams from his 14-year-old sister, who found her body on the patio.
When detectives told him a home security camera had images of someone else at an upstairs window, he changed his story to say his mother had asked him to fetch a spray bottle of cleaning solution, according to police.
And later, Altantawi remembered he was holding a ladder for her when she fell off it. He said he was in disbelief, took a shower and went back to bed.
The 14-year-old sister called 911 and went to the door to meet first responders. Muhammad continued to speak with a dispatcher while making “half-hearted” attempts at CPR with one hand while holding the phone, Farmington Hills Detective Richard Welby testified at a district court exam.
An assistant medical examiner testified that the absence of blood where the body landed and the lack of brain damage indicated Huranieh was already dead before she went out the window. Assistant prosecuting attorney John Skrzynski said a ladder and cleaning solution left on the window were also staged to make it look like an accident.
Altantawi’s parents were divorcing and court records show their separation had caused issues in the family. The teen had run away from home on several occasions for meetings with his father, who had expressed concern about how his estranged wife was “Americanizing” their children, contrary to their conservative Muslim and Syrian roots.
The couple had wed in Syria in 1999.
All three children were in the home during an incident months before Huranieh's death in which Bassel Altantawi allegedly pushed his wife down a flight of stairs during an argument, court records indicate.