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Jury deliberations begin in trial of slain synagogue president Samantha Woll’s suspected killer

Defendant Michael Jackson-Bolanos, who has pleaded not guilty, is charged with first-degree murder, home invasion and lying to the police

(JTA) — Jury deliberations are set to begin in the Samantha Woll murder trial, nearly nine months after the Detroit synagogue president was found stabbed to death outside her home.

Defendant Michael Jackson-Bolanos, 29, is charged with first-degree murder, home invasion and lying to the police. He has pleaded not guilty and his lawyer said in closing arguments that he was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Prosecutors say the evidence — including Woll’s blood on his jacket — points to Jackson-Bolanos’ guilt.

Judge Margaret Van Houten dismissed the jurors Tuesday afternoon. They are set to begin their deliberations Wednesday morning.

The murder on Oct. 21, 2023 came two weeks after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, as American Jews were on high alert for rising antisemitism. The crime shocked Woll’s Jewish community in Detroit, where the 40-year-old served as president of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue and had worked for Michigan Democratic officials.

But police quickly asserted that her killing was not a hate crime. Jackson-Bolanos was not charged until nearly two months after Woll’s death, and was the second suspect taken into custody in the investigation.

The first suspect, ex-boyfriend Jeff Herbstman, placed a 911 call in early November confessing to Woll’s murder during a panic attack, but testified during the trial, which began June 11, that he had no role in her murder, saying, “I believe now it was an adverse reaction to a medication.”

Jackson-Bolanos likewise says he is innocent. He told the jury last Wednesday that he never entered Woll’s home, claiming instead that he was breaking into cars in the neighborhood, and that she was already dead when he found her. After checking for signs of life and finding none, he said, he fled.

Jackson-Bolanos, who has past criminal convictions, testified that he was afraid of being detected.

“If this was a robbery, this would not have been in this picture. It would have been taken,” defense attorney Brian Brown said during Tuesday’s closing arguments, showing the jury photos of Woll’s purse, cash, keys, and laptop, still at the scene. “You don’t take someone’s purse? Money? Credit cards?”

Brown suggested that Herbstman or another of Woll’s acquaintances may be the guilty party,

Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Ryan Elsey told the jury Tuesday that Jackson-Bolanos had killed Woll during a home invasion, pointing to cell phone data that placed the defendant at the scene at the same time as Woll’s apartment motion detector recorded movement. He accused Jackson-Bolanos of changing his story multiple times over the course of the trial.

“Don’t believe him,” Elsey said.

“I can’t tell you what exactly happened inside her apartment,” Elsey said, “But we don’t need to know.”

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