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An ongoing battle for justice in the death of a Muslim minister

By Starla Muhammad -Managing Editor- | Last updated: Aug 30, 2017 - 10:53:12 AM

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Bro. Robert Muhammad (center) with his wife, Yreva, and seven of their children. (Right Photo) Minister Farrakhan greets Nioreh Dion Muhammad, 19, one of eight children of Robert and Yreva Muhammad, at the court hearing. Photo: Starla Muhammad

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.— The fight to uncover what really happened that led to the tragic death of Nation of Islam Student Minister Robert Dion Muhammad is far from over.

Two days of intense oral arguments in continued hearings in the wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of his widow, Yreva Muhammad, were presented recently in front of Judge J. Joseph Rossi who ruled on several motions filed by both sides.

Student Minister Robert Muhammad
Some rulings were in favor of the plaintiff, Yreva Muhammad, others were in favor of the defendants.

Courtroom D at the Kent County Circuit Court was packed Aug. 23 as family members of Robert Muhammad and a delegation of Muslims from the Nation of Islam, including the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and members of the Executive Council sat quietly and unflinching while observing proceedings.

“There is a universal hallmark to the truth. The truth doesn’t change. It won’t be inconsistent,” Attorney Berve Power Muhammad stated in his opening remarks during the first motion argued that day filed on behalf of his client. He represents Yreva Muhammad and the estate of Robert Muhammad. Attorney Sadiyah Evangelista Karriem also serves on Mrs. Muhammad’s legal team.

Robert Muhammad, 39-year-old husband, father of eight and student minister of the Nation of Islam’s Grand Rapids Study Group went missing in the waters of Muskegon State Park’s campground beach September 5, 2014 during an outing with co-workers. His body was found the next day in Muskegon Lake on what would have been his 40th birthday.

Without conducting a criminal investigation, authorities stated Robert Muhammad struggled while swimming back to a boat situated offshore that belonged to one of his co-workers and ruled his death an accidental drowning. Others are not so sure pointing to photos of his body after it was pulled from the water that revealed multiple bruises and contusions on the young student minister’s face, along with other questionable findings.

His widow filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Bertrand Thibault, Daniel Moore, Michael Champrenault, Nicholas Pelfrene, William Gresley, Matthew Kamps and Sebastien Lebon. They were with her husband that fateful day at the lake. The suit alleges they are responsible for his death and wants the case to go to trial and decided in front of a jury. A team of nearly a dozen attorneys for the various defendants’ claim the lawsuit is frivolous, want the suit dropped and argue that what happened to Robert Muhammad was no more than just a tragic accident.

New facts, new clues?

The latest round of proceedings included a Motion for Leave to Amend Complaint filed by Mrs. Muhammad’s counsel who stated additional facts and information about the case have recently come to light and that those issues must be explored.

(L) Atty. Berve Power Muhammad presents before judge in Kent County Circuit Court on Aug. 24 as Abdul Arif Muhammad, Nation of Islam’s General Counsel looks on. Photos: Starla Muhammad (R) Atty. Sadiyah Evangelista Karriem presents in court in wrongful death lawsuit as Yreva Muhammad, wife of Robert Muhammad looks on.

There are conflicting and inconsistent accounts involving several issues including how far from the boat Robert Muhammad was when he went under, with witness accounts varying from three to 90 feet. A U.S. Coast Guard report noted that one defendant said Robert Muhammad fell overboard. The unredacted report was just received by his office in March, said Atty. Power Muhammad.

“We are not here to prove or disprove, we are here identifying where statements are inconsistent,” said Atty. Power Muhammad. “This year we began to learn more than we learned before,” he told the judge.

It was also revealed in proceedings there are conflicting accounts as to whether the body of Robert Muhammad was discovered using side scan sonar as noted by the U.S. Coast Guard rather than by authorities with Muskegon County as previous accounts noted. Additionally, one plaintiff expert noted that due to the number of bite marks from aquatic life found on Robert Muhammad’s body that he was in the water no more than four hours, not the 23 hours it was reported.

All of these unexplained occurrences cannot be simply dismissed, noted Atty. Power Muhammad. Several parties have yet to respond to subpoenas as well, he continued. The lead investigator did not board the boat to investigate or take photos of the interior or exterior, did not speak to bystanders and interviewed the defendants by telephone instead of having them come to the police station. “A litany of things a trained expert would do, he did not do,” said Atty. Power Muhammad.

The defendants are represented by multiple attorneys, several who argued that inconsistencies during investigations occur but are not sufficient enough to grant the motion and accused Yreva Muhammad’s counsel of conducting a “fishing expedition that has led to nothing.” A charge that was vehemently denied.

“It’s hard to say it’s frivolous when you can’t explain multiple things. We are trying to get to the truth,” Atty. Power Muhammad said during his rebuttal. “There will be no stone left unturned to get justice for Robert Muhammad. At any time there is something unusual, it is something worth pursuing,” he added. “Our advocacy is supported by our love for Robert Muhammad.” He was a great standing member of the Nation of Islam. Those injuries cannot be dismissed.”

In a setback to the plaintiff, Judge Rossi stated though he agreed many of the events presented were inexplicable and that there were strong arguments on both sides, he denied the plaintiff’s motion. But the issue is far from over as the losing side of a motion has the option of filing a motion for reconsideration to the court.

The second motion argued Aug. 23 was a Motion to Compel Autopsy Reports from the medical examiner’s office. Atty. Power Muhammad subpoenaed records that were never received, he said. Judge Rossi granted that motion.

Outside of the courtroom after day one, Atty. Power Muhammad told reporters that the ultimate goal is for the case to be presented in front of a jury and that more information about what happened to Robert Muhammad “will be disclosed.” “Robert Muhammad is speaking to us through his injuries,” he said.

During breaks in the day, Min. Farrakhan was observed comforting and talking with family members of Robert Muhammad. The Muslim leader performed the Janazah (Islamic funeral service) for his young student minister upon his death and has been monitoring the case closely.

Day two of proceedings on Aug. 24 consisted of four additional motions, two filed by the plaintiff and two by the defendants. Motion for Production of Defendants’ Cell Phones and Motion for Leave to Supplement Lay Witness List were both filed by the plaintiff and were granted by Judge Rossi. Attys. Power Muhammad and Evangelista Karriem requested data from the phones of the defendants be analyzed for any additional information that could lead to clues from the day Robert Muhammad died. The additional witness was reportedly at the scene that day and recorded cell phone footage and took photos as well, Atty. Evangelista Karriem told the judge.

Attorneys for the defendants’ filed a motion to exclude a longtime aquatic life fishery professional, disputing claims the person was an actual expert in their field. Atty. Power Muhammad said that opposing counsel filed motions to exclude nearly all of their expert witnesses.

Although Judge Rossi granted defense lawyers’ motion to exclude the expert, he left the door open for a motion for reconsideration for certain aspects of his testimony.

The final motion presented by the defense was a Motion to Compel Answers to Interrogatories, meaning they wanted Yreva Muhammad’s legal team to be more specific in their responses, arguing they are entitled to know information and evidence immediately and should not have to wait for a trial. One attorney for the defense even asked, “what is driving this litigation” and questioned the motive of the Nation of Islam in pursuing the case.

Judge Rossi granted the defense request.

“We’ve been fighting since February of last year, when we filed the case and so we have one major hurdle left which is they’re going to file a motion for Summary Disposition sometime next month and basically what that motion says is (it’s) their final attempt to have the judge throw the case out before it goes to trial,” Atty. Power Muhammad told The Final Call during an exclusive interview.

Dignity, faith and family

Atty. Evangelista Karriem said she is amazed at the strength and dignity of Yreva Muhammad, Robert Muhammad’s mother Carla Muhammad and the entire family during this long, arduous process.

Left to right: April Muhammad (sister of Robert Muhammad), Yreva Muhammad (wife of Robert Muhammad), Attorney Berve Power Muhammad, Carla Muhammad (mother of Robert Muhammad) and Attorney Sadiyah Evangelista Karriem

“There is no doubt that these women are followers of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and there is no doubt that Allah (God) is sufficient. These women are extremely brilliant, stoic; but the love that they have for their son and for their husband and just what they’re encountering from the defendants, the information that they’re seeing, it’s like their faith is in my opinion is unwavering in that they don’t flinch,” said Atty. Evangelista Karriem. “Their trust lies in Allah and his justice, not man’s justice, but Allah’s justice. These women are strong, I look up to them.”

It has been a long process, especially for Yreva Muhammad because she has had to look at autopsy reports, photos of her husband after his body was pulled from the water and has endured so much, added Atty. Evangelista Karriem.

“Their strength in looking at all of this sensitive evidence, hearing the sensitive details about his death, they know that justice lies in Allah. Just physically, seeing how they respond is the representation and manifestation of the faith that they have in Allah.”

To say that Sister Yreva is strong would be an understatement, added Atty. Power Muhammad. “She by all accounts was a very dedicated wife to Brother Robert, mother to their children and then in a moment’s notice she was thrust into the role of head of household overnight, which is a role she had never played in the 16-17 years that they were married. So, she has assumed that role with grace, dignity and strength and she is resolved to keep not only the memory of her husband alive but to keep the quest for justice alive.”