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Trial begins for murder case of strangled wife
825 cochise trail - house of murder victim sheila muhammad nov 2009
825 Cochise Trail, where the body of Sheila Muhammad was found - photo by Photo by Michelle Kim

The trial of Hakim Muhammad, charged for the 2009 murder of his estranged wife Sheila Duhon Muhammad, commenced Tuesday in Rockdale County Superior Court with testimony from investigators and first responders, as well as tape of the victim's 911 call days before her death.

Muhammad, 43, is charged with malice murder, two counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, and tampering with evidence.

On Nov. 4, 2009, shortly after 7:40 a.m. deputies responded to a call of a suspected burglary in progress at 825 Cochise Trail. The call came from a neighbor who heard the sound of breaking glass. They found a white SUV in the driveway, a ground-level window in the back of the house broken and unlocked, the back door locked, and saw Hakim Muhammad in the house through the window. He went upstairs and opened the front door of the split-level house. Deputies found the strangled body of his wife, Sheila, who was then 43, on the living room floor.

Investigators testified that there was a small amount of blood, a white ribbon and a black scarf or do-rag type of cloth next to her body, along with a black bookbag. One shoe, a house slipper, was reportedly off her foot and nearby. In Hakim's pockets deputies found a cell phone, cigarettes, lighter, and a gold wedding band that belonged to Sheila Muhammad.

Defense attorneys alleged that Hakim Muhammad had broken into the house from the back window after Sheila had not returned to his home nearby on Cedar Lake Drive from picking up her laptop. Once inside, he allegedly heard a noise upstairs, discovered her body and held it before he heard deputies arrive.

Crime Scene Investigation division head Sgt. Duane Day testified that most of the broken glass appeared to be on the outside, as if it had been broken from inside-out.

Several times, Public Defender Steven Purvis questioned first responders and the neighbor who heard the sound of glass breaking about their line of vision, pointing out the areas they could not see as they walked inside and outside the house.

He also said investigators failed to thoroughly test the scene and other items, such as a butter knife and a bandana found in the yard. "Police had decided he was their suspect," said Purvis. He highlighted Muhammad's cooperation with investigators and the fact that the defendent did not ask for an attorney until after several interviews with investigators.

Assistant District Attorney Deborah Sullivan pointed out there was much debris in the yard from the previous tennents. She also noted that Hakim had his cell phone with him but had not called 911 when the deputies arrived.

"He's upset. He was in such a state he forgot he had the phone with him," said Purvis. "He loved her. It was his intention they get back together."

Prosecutors described Sheila Muhammad, a California native and registered nurse who was working on her PhD with the University of Georgia, as happy and upbeat. "She seemed happy. Certain things were happening in her life. She was making changes," said Sullivan. But she was also "so sad sometimes she had to get away from the house."

Sheila had started moving out of the house on Clear Lake Drive where Hakim and their children, her 9-year-old son and his 14-year-old son, lived. She had just started renting the house at 825 Cochise Trail, located five minutes' walking distance from Hakim's house, a few days before she died. The house was still mostly empty of furniture at the time.

The first time she stayed overnight on Nov. 2, she called 911 around 3 a.m. and reported that she had heard footsteps on the stairs and someone trying to get in through the garage.

As the tape of the call played and the whispering voice of the now-deceased victim rang out in the courtroom, a couple jurors swallowed and blinked rapidly. The defendant rested his head on his hands and closed his eyes.

Prosecutors noted that Hakim had arrived on a bicycle at the Cochise Trail house about five to 10 minutes after deputies, although the responding deputy testified he did not observe Sheila making phone calls. She ended up going back to the Clear Lake Drive house with Hakim.

The trial continues under Judge Sidney Nation on Wednesday at 9:30 a.m.