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As murder trial began, friends and family remembered stabbing victim
By Andrew Wig

Nov. 30, 2013, was a day of celebration for Habibi Tesema. The father of two had just bought his wife a van and had invited his siblings to his Richfield home to celebrate.

“I had never observed such happiness on his face,” Ahmed Elphato, Tesema’s brother, remembered.

Those happy hours would be among Tesema’s last. At the age of 48, he was found dead in his home with multiple stab wounds in the early  morning of Dec. 1, 2013.

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The resulting murder trial began exactly one year later.

Tesema’s wife, 40-year-old Amreya Shefa, is on trial in Hennepin County Court for the death of her husband. She faces a charge of second-degree murder. Shefa was the last witness to take the stand as the defense rested its case Wednesday.

Having waived her right to a jury trial and instead leaving the verdict up to Judge Elizabeth Cutter, Shefa still awaits her fate. A written closing argument from the defense is due Dec. 19, and Cutter is scheduled to deliver her verdict Jan. 23.

As prosecutor Cheri Townsend built her case to start the trial, Tesema’s siblings and a longtime friend were called to the witness stand, while friends and family of the victim watched – and at times wept.

Elphato and his siblings also winced in anguish periodically as they
remembered their brother and his final day alive.

Tesema sustained at least 27 wounds from his wife, Townsend told the judge. Shefa told police she killed her husband, but defense attorney Thomas Bauer was set to build a case of self-defense, involving allegations of sexual abuse, beginning Tuesday, when Shefa and expert defense witnesses were expected to take the stand.

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Shefa rejected the prosecution’s offer of a plea bargain for 261 months in prison, which would nearly cut in half the 40-year sentence for second-degree murder.

Those in the victim’s corner pre-empted the self-defense argument with their own stories.

A friend of Tesema’s and three siblings all swore they had never known their brother to commit an act of physical or sexual abuse against his wife and never noticed any suspicious injuries. Instead, Tesema, a native of Ethiopia, was described as a quiet man who spoke against violence.

Behailu Tinkishu, also from Ethiopia, said he had known Tesema for 30 years. The 44-year-old Columbia Heights resident called his friend “laid back,” and “collected and thoughtful.”

“He doesn’t like confrontations,” Tinkishu said.

The confrontation that would end Tesema’s life occurred sometime before 5 a.m. Dec. 1 of last year, a Sunday.

The victim’s siblings, all testifying through an interpreter in their native language of Amharic, described calm in the home the day prior. On the witness stand, the three siblings described how they had gathered that night in Tesema’s three-bedroom house, located on the 7300 block of 12th Avenue in Richfield. The couple’s 2-year-old boy and 3-year-old girl were also present.

“Everything was good. Everybody was at peace. There was no problem,” Zeytuna Elies, Tesema’s sister, said on the stand.

The Robbinsdale resident said she had been staying at the home and was sleeping in the basement when she was awoken by her brother, Gessese Elphato. The 28-year-old Minneapolis resident was also sleeping in the basement, after deciding to stay the night.

Tesema called for Elies: “Help me, help me,” Gessese Elphato testified.

Elies said she heard quick-moving footsteps overhead before ascending the stairs.

At first, Elies thought her sister-in-law was the one who was hurt, according to her testimony.

“She had blood on her hands and I was asking her, ‘What happened to you?’ And I was trying to help her,” Elies said.

But Elies caught a glimpse of her critically injured brother. According to her testimony, she saw him jump quickly across the hallway, from a bedroom into the bathroom while uttering some of his last words.

“What he said was something I will never forget,” Elies said. “He called my name, and then he called his children’s names. I think he was telling me to take care of them.”

Robbinsdale resident Ahmed Elphato, the victim’s 35-year-old brother, said he is now caring for the children.

Elies said she called 911 and that she and Gessese Elphato went outside. She added that at the time, they still did not know what had happened to their brother, only to be informed of his fate by law enforcement after police entered the home.

In 1994, Tesema became the first of his siblings to arrive in America – 18 years before his wife-to-be joined him from Ethiopia. Coming from a poor family in the town of Dilla, it was his aim “to improve his life,” Elies said.

His siblings said that, until they arrived to Minnesota in 2001, he helped support them, too, sending money back to Africa. They said he also thought about strangers; Tinkishu mentioned a non-profit, called the Dilla Area Charitable Organization, that he and Tesema founded to aid children in their home town.

Tesema worked two jobs – at an airport parking lot and as a cab driver, Ahmed Elphato said. His siblings also described him as a handyman with plenty to keep him busy around his house.

“He was a very hard-working person. … He planned to change his life as well as the life of his family,” Elies said.

Married life had rough patches, though. Tesema’s siblings all recounted
periodic disputes between the couple, with Shefa becoming angered at times when her husband would make purchases or do tasks around the home without consulting her.

But the fights were never physical, the siblings said.

Elies described the domicile as “just a quiet house. That’s what I noticed.”

Tinkishu, Tesema’s friend, said he once mediated an argument that arose after Tesema wasn’t home from work when his wife expected. Tinkishu described how he visited the couple’s home the next day and listened to their troubles, satisfied upon leaving that the disturbance had calmed down.

Tinkishu recounted asking if there were problems “in the bedroom.”

“They both looked at me with that look,” he said, taking it to mean the answer was no.

Ahmed Elphato did, however, describe jealousy on the part of Shefa, based on her husband’s friendship with another woman who grew up in the same region as Tesema and also lived in Minnesota. Elphato insisted she was “just a friend.”

Tesema’s siblings described their relationship with Shefa as distant. Elies said she tried to get closer to Shefa, but that she had the impression her sister-in-law was
not interested.

Still, she said, “We were fine.”

But the morning of Tesema’s death, after the siblings in the house were awoken, Shefa cursed the family, Elies said.

She recounted the defendant saying, “You guys are the ones that caused this problem,” while being accused of destroying their marriage.

Hours earlier, Tesema did something that his brother, Ahmed Elphato, found out of the ordinary.

Habibi was not normally one to get on his knees.

“That day,” Elphato said, “we prayed together twice.”

Contact Andrew Wig at andrew.wig@ecm-inc.com or follow him on Twitter @RISunCurrent.

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