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Hadiya’s mom testifies: ‘I didn’t understand why my daughter had been shot’

Nathaniel Pendleton Sr. and Cleopatra Cowley talk during the trial for the fatal shooting of their daughter Hadiya Pendleton at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. Defendant Micheail Ward and co-defendant Kenneth Williams are on trial for the shooting. | Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Pool

When Cleo Pendleton Cowley took a call from her daughter’s best friend on the afternoon of Jan. 29, 2013, she could barely understand the voice on the other end of the line. Hadiya Pendleton’s best friend, Klyn Jones, was panicked, and what she was saying made no sense to Cowley: Hadiya, a 15-year-old honor student, had been shot.

“I just didn’t understand why my daughter had been shot,” Cowley said from the witness stand at the trial of the two men charged with her daughter’s murder. “That’s not something I worried about, ever.”

Hadiya was an honor student at King College Prep, and had been in Washington D.C. with the school band a week early to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama. She and a group of classmates had gone to a park near the campus to hang out after final exams, when prosecutors say defendant Micheail Ward fired at the teens, thinking they were members of a rival gang.

Eventually, a police officer took the phone from Jones and spoke with Cowley, she recalled.

“I asked if I could talk to her. The officer said no, she’s already in the back of the ambulance,” Cowley said, choking up. “And she was alive and well.”

Pendleton died at Comer Children’s Hospital an hour later.

Chicago police Sgt. Velma Guerrero is questioned by prosecutor Brian Holmes during the trial for the fatal shooting of Hadiya Pendleton at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. Defendant Micheail Ward and co-defendant K
Chicago police Sgt. Velma Guerrero is questioned by prosecutor Brian Holmes during the trial for the fatal shooting of Hadiya Pendleton at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. Defendant Micheail Ward and co-defendant Kenneth Williams are on trial for the shooting. | Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Pool

Cowley spent about 10 minutes on the stand, at the end of a day that had consisted mostly of dry expert testimony about gunpowder residue tests and the workings of cellphone towers near the murder scene.

Cowley, who has been seated with family members in the front row of the courtroom gallery each day of the trial, served as a “life-and-death” witness, whose role is to provide a routine but essential bit of evidence in a murder trial: that the victim was alive, and is now dead.

As a formality, Cowley identified a picture of a smiling Hadiya, flashing a peace sign, as representing what her daughter looked like while alive. She was not required to identify pictures from the teen’s autopsy. Lawyers for Ward and his co-defendant, Kenneth Williams, did not ask to cross-examine the 43-year-old Cowley.

As a matter of trial strategy, Cowley’s testimony would typically have come at either the start or the end of the prosecution’s case, to provide emotional punch. Indeed, prosecutors Monday rested their case against Williams, who allegedly drove the getaway car after the shooting.

Separate juries were selected to hear the case, one for Ward and one for Williams. Prosecutors are expected to close out their case against Ward on Tuesday or Wednesday.

As they have throughout the trial, lawyers for Ward and Williams on Monday tried to show that detectives rushed to make an arrest as Pendleton’s murder became a national news story.

Defense attorney Scott Kozicki holds an item of clothing as he questions Illinois State Police forensic scientist Mary Wong during the trial for the fatal shooting of Hadiya Pendleton at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago on Monday, Aug. 20,
Defense attorney Scott Kozicki holds an item of clothing as he questions Illinois State Police forensic scientist Mary Wong during the trial for the fatal shooting of Hadiya Pendleton at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. Defendant Micheail Ward and co-defendant Kenneth Williams are on trial for the shooting. | Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Pool

Sgt. Velma Guerrero, one of the detectives assigned to the shooting, testified that investigators quickly focused their search for suspects on members of the SUWU street gang, based on a gang unit officer’s knowledge that the gang was warring with the 4-6 Terror gang that frequented the park where the shooting took place.

Defense lawyers characterized the subsequent investigation as too narrow, excluding other rival gangs in the area, and even ignoring other suspects among the ranks of the SUWUs.

An FBI cellphone expert testified that data from cell towers near the park showed that calls placed from Ward and Williams’ phones had bounced off towers near the park around the time of the shooting.

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