A Queens woman whose father was convicted of brutally murdering her mother 20 years ago is hoping the Innocence Project won't revisit the most horrific chapter of her life.
On the morning of Feb. 15, Nora Bessaha exited the F train at Herald Square to find she had a voicemail from Innocence Project lawyer Jane Puchar. Much to Bessaha's surprise, Puchar said she was working with Nora's father, Ali — an 81-year-old former livery driver serving a life sentence in Sing Sing for killing his estranged wife Ourida in July 1999, in the throes of a contentious divorce.
Horrible memories came flooding back for Nora. She never doubted that it was her father who killed her mom in the victim's Hicksville, Long Island, home.
"I don't want to hate people, I don't want to live my life that way, but sometimes I feel that way," Nora told the Daily News. "It's hard to function every day. I'm sighing a lot. It's like having the weight of the world on your back. I can't have peace."
Not wanting to deal with anyone sympathetic to her father, Nora forwarded the Innocence Project's voicemail to her attorney Charles Mirotznik and asked him to find out what was going on. Mirotznik told The News the DNA-driven, social justice firm has declined to provide any information as to the nature of their investigation.
A month after their initial outreach, they assured Mirotznik no further attempts to contact Nora would be made.
"I told (Pucher), 'he's a monster,' " said Mirotznik. "I'd like them to know from the outset that she has no interest in his freedom."
Or, as Nora put it: "There's an old saying — throw away the key."
Ourida was killed the weekend before she and Ali were to have gone to court to finalize a plan to divvy up four Queens apartment buildings purchased during their 30-year marriage, which had come an end. Mirotznik was representing Ourida in that property dispute. He later testified for the prosecution in Ali's murder case. According to Mirotznik, investigators told him they suspected a hammer claw was used in the horrific attack. No murder weapon was recovered.
Ali, who has maintained his innocence, was convicted of second-degree murder in 2002. His criminal appeals have been unsuccessful and he was ordered to pay a $15 million wrongful death claim after failing to attend a civil trial.
Adding to Nora's grief, her brother Alex, who found their mother's bludgeoned corpse, committed suicide in December. He was 46. Nora said Alex went into an emotional tailspin from which he never recovered following the gruesome discovery.
She blames their father for Alex's death as well.
"(Alex) basically didn't want to live anymore because of this," she said. "It was hard for him."
The Innocence Project's voicemail to Nora unwittingly asked if she could help them get a hold of Alex. It was their understanding Ali had at some point been in contact with his son. Nora hasn't spoken to her dad since his 2002 conviction, but took care of her brother until his death. She had no knowledge of any communications between the two.
An Innocence Project spokeswoman wrote back to say its investigation is in its preliminary stages.
"The Innocence Project just recently accepted the case in order to obtain DNA testing as a means to investigating Mr. Bessaha's claims of Innocence. At this time, we do not feel it is appropriate to discuss the case at length with the press," wrote a company spokeswoman.
The nonprofit organization has overturned more than 360 wrongful convictions and led to the investigations of nearly 160 criminals since it was founded in 1992 by O.J. Simpson defense attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. They scored a major victory last month when Archie Williams was freed from a New Orleans prison where he'd served 36 years of a life sentence for a 1983 rape conviction that was overturned by technological advances in fingerprinting.
As for the Bessaha case, Mirotznik says that if Ali and the Innocence Project move forward, they do so without the blessing of his terrified client.
"The sheer savagery of the murder provides absolutely no basis for early release, on sympathetic, medical or any theoretical technical grounds," he said. "He is and will remain a monster who has ruined his entire family and their precious lives."
Nora has married and moved forward with her life, but she's still holding onto a part of her past.
"I'm doing this to defend my mother and brother who are no longer here," she said. "All the fingers point at my dad."