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Hadiya Pendleton murder trial: ‘Seriously, I think I got shot’

Hadiya Pendleton's mother Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton (center) walks with supporters into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, Tuesday morning, Aug. 14, 2018. The trial of two men charged with the murder of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was fatally shot in a South Side park in 2013, begins Tuesday. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Klyn Jones doubled over on the witness stand, sobbing softly as she listened to her own voice shrieking at a 911 dispatcher as she stood beside her best friend, Hadiya Pendleton, as Pendleton lay on the sidewalk, bleeding from a gunshot wound.

Jones, now 21, was the first witness to testify for the prosecution Tuesday, at the trial of two men charged with the 15-year-old Pendleton’s murder — Micheail Ward and Kenneth Williams. Her hair in long braids as she wore a purple and pink print dress, Jones maintained her composure for most of her time on the stand describing the unseasonably warm Jan. 29, 2013, afternoon when Pendleton was shot.

Jones and a group of classmates had gone to Harsh Park on the South Side, enjoying a half-day and hanging out after finishing final exams. After running under a shelter in the park to get out of a sudden downpour, Jones said she saw a man pointing a gun at the group from across the park. She heard shots and she and her friends scattered. As she ran from the park, she looked back to see Pendleton.

Hadiya Pendleton (AP Photo/Courtesy of Damon Stewart, File)
Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed in January 2013. | Associated Press photo/Courtesy of Damon Stewart

“She was, like, running still but she was obviously slowing down. She grabbed her chest and said, ‘I think I got shot,'” Jones said. “I said, ‘stop playing. We have to go.’ She said, ‘No, seriously, I think I got shot,’ and fell to the ground.”

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Wearing all black, Pendleton’s mother, Cleo, looked fixedly at Jones from her seat in the front row of the courtroom gallery, inches from the jury box.

Hadiya Pendleton’s mother, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, watches opening arguments in the Hadiya Pendleton murder trial at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Tuesday Aug. 14, 2018. | Jose M. Osorio/ Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool
Hadiya Pendleton’s mother, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, watches opening arguments in the Hadiya Pendleton murder trial at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Tuesday Aug. 14, 2018. | Jose M. Osorio/ Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool

Jones said she called 911 and tried to make her friend comfortable; the 911 call recorded a far more harrowing scene.

Jones bent over until only the top of her head was visible over the side of the witness box as Assistant State’s Attorney Brian Holmes played excerpts from her panicked phone call to 911. On the recording, Jones’ voice is almost unintelligible as she screams for help, and struggles to identify the address. After about a minute, the voice of a woman cuts in, after a nurse who lived near the park took the phone from Jones.

Nathaniel Anthony Pendleton, father of shooting victim Hadiya Pendleton, walks into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin| Chicago Sun-Times
Nathaniel Anthony Pendleton, father of shooting victim Hadiya Pendleton, walks into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin| Chicago Sun-Times

“We’re at 4561 South Oakenwald,” the woman said, her voice clear and loud over the wailing of chorus of terrified teenage girls in the background. “We got a female down, gunshot wound.”

After a short cross examination by one of Ward’s lawyers, Jones stepped down from the stand and strode purposefully out of the courtroom, past a state’s attorney staffer calling her name — Williams’ lawyer still had to question her. Sheepishly, she walked back to her seat in the box, smiling at a joke from Judge Nicholas Ford.

Prosecution: ‘She held her friend’s hand as she bled out into the street’

The trial on Tuesday opened nearly six years after Pendleton was gunned down about a mile from the Kenwood home of President Barack Obama. The honors student, a majorette in the King College Prep band, had two weeks earlier attended events in Washington D.C. celebrating Chicago resident Obama’s second inauguration.

A more visceral version of Jones’ account of the shooting had formed the centerpiece of Assistant State’s Attorney Barbara Dawkins’ opening statement a few moments earlier. Dawkins described the same gathering of King College Prep classmates in the park, an informal gathering that was disrupted by a gang feud playing out in the neighborhood around the park.

“Klyn Jones held the hand of her best friend. She held the hand of her friend Hadiya Pendleton as she bled out into the street,” Dawkins told jurors.

“Hadiya Pendleton had been shot in the back. An hour later, at Comer Children’s Hospital, she died.”

Investigators began looking for rivals of the 46 Terror gang faction that operated around the park, Hawkins said, specifically gang members with a white car that matched the description of a vehicle seen speeding away after the shooting.

“This is a gang case. This case is going to introduce you to gang life in the city of Chicago,” Dawkins said. “You are going to learn how rivalries and friendships are determined by gang boundaries, and how disputes are handled though violence in the street.”

Defense: Alleged gunman’s confession ‘is evidence of his innocence’

Ward’s lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Julie Koehler gave an animated introductory statement, and did not shrink from emotional details that made the case a national news story — contending that the intense media scrutiny on the investigation prompted investigators to focus on Ward and Williams, despite a lack of physical evidence tying them to the shooting.

Defendant Kenneth Williams, center, is flanked by attorneys Matt McQuaid, and Julie Koehler, during opening arguments in the Hadiya Pendleton murder trial at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. Jose M. Osorio| Chicago Tribune via
Defendant Kenneth Williams, center, is flanked by attorneys Matt McQuaid, and Julie Koehler, during opening arguments in the Hadiya Pendleton murder trial at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. Jose M. Osorio| Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool

Koehler’s opening offered more detail on the case and the evidence than did the prosecution’s, but she presented it as a litany of unfounded assumptions and equivocating witnesses. The most damning evidence against her client, his own videotaped confession, came after 48 hours in police custody, during which investigators manipulated him into making a false statement, she said. Up to four hours of the interrogation video will be played for jurors.

“You’ll be able to see the moment when Micheail has an epiphany. He says ‘I’m beginning to realize what you guys can do for me if I take it all,'” Koehler said. “So what does he do? He takes it all. And he takes the story and tells it back to them.”

Defendant Micheail Ward’s attorney Julie Koehler delivers opening arguments in the Hadiya Pendleton murder trial at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Tuesday Aug. 14, 2018. Jose M. Osorio | Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool
Defendant Micheail Ward’s attorney Julie Koehler delivers opening arguments in the Hadiya Pendleton murder trial at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Tuesday Aug. 14, 2018. Jose M. Osorio | Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool

His confession had important facts wrong: Ward said the shooting happened in an another park several blocks from Harsh Park, he said he used the wrong type of gun, and he incorrectly described how rival gang members in the park used Pendleton as a shield from the gunshots, Koehler said.

“That statement is actually evidence of his innocence, not his guilt,” she said.

Witness: Former CPD police officer Ronald Evans

Prosecutors followed Jones’ testimony with Ronald Evans, a former police officer in Chicago. Evans and his former wife, onetime Country Club Hills police chief Regina Evans, pleaded guilty in 2013 to misusing a $1.2 million state grant

Ronald Evans, who heard the gunshots and saw a teenaged male running through an alley with a gun, then jumped into a white Nissan.

Evans described the gunman as wearing a hooded sweatshirt that was “a unique shade of blue.” Assistant State’s Attorney James Papa opened an evidence bag and pulled out a teal sweatshirt, with a large white “Lacoste” logo.

“The blue of this hooded sweatshirt, you tell me, do you recognize this color?”

“Yes,” Evans said. “From the male black running from my house (in 2013).”

“As you sit here today, can you even describe the color blue that is,” Papa asked.

“No,” Evans said.

On cross examination, Koehler noted that in police reports in 2013, Evans had described the shade as royal blue or light blue.

“I believe that I’ve always said that it was a strange color blue, that I don’t know the name of,” he said. “I specifically described it as a weird, or unique shade of blue.”

Koehler pointed out to Evans that he accepted a plea deal in his case eight months after Ward and Williams were arrested.

“That case was pending while you were providing this information to the Chicago Police Department?” Koehler asked.

“That case was pending,” he said. On re-cross, Evans said he received no benefits from federal prosecutors for his assistance on the Pendleton investigation, and was sentenced to a year in prison.

The trial over Pendleton’s murder is scheduled to last two weeks.

While much of the evidence will overlap, the two juries for Ward and Williams will shuttle in and out of the courtroom during the trial for some portions.

Witness: Ernest Finner

A reluctant Finner spent most of his time on the witness stand listening to Assistant State’s Attorney Brian Holmes read him lengthy excerpts from Finner’s 2013 testimony before the grand jury that handed up the indictment against his friends, Ward and Williams.

Finner, staring out from the witness stand, seldom offered more than “I don’t remember,” in response to Holmes’ questions, when he didn’t contradict the prosecutor’s assertions. After getting about five “I don’t remembers” out of Finner, Judge Ford granted Holmes’ request to treat Finner as a hostile witness, allowing the prosecutor to essentially lead Ward through his five-year-old grand jury transcript.

In 2013, Finner was much more effusive, describing getting picked up by Ward and Williams in Ward’s white Nissan not long after the shooting, and a meeting of SUWU gang members to discuss how the gang planned the shooting and was going to deal with the mounting pressure on the gang after police flooded the neighborhood after Pendleton’s death.

In her opening statement, Ward’s attorney pointed out that Finner was one of several alleged SUWU members who made statements to police after they were summoned in for questioning by their parole officers in the days after the shooting.

Holmes closed his questioning with a darker reason for backing off his earlier statement, asking Finner about one of their final conversations about the case while Finner still was cooperating with prosecutors. Finner then agreed to testify.

“You indicated to me that you weren’t concerned for yourself, you were concerned for your mom, is that correct?” Holmes asked.

“I don’t remember,” Finner said.