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Getaway driver guilty in Hadiya Pendleton murder

Hadiya Pendleton's mom, Cleo Cowley Pendleton, her dad, Nathaniel, and brother Nathaniel Jr. leave the courthouse Wednesday after Kenneth Williams (upper left) was found guilty in Hadiya's murder (lower left). |Andy Grimm/Sun-Times; pool photos

Jurors on Wednesday found a man guilty of being the getaway driver in the 2013 murder of Hadiya Pendleton, the Chicago teen who was killed just a week after attending President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

During a trial that spanned two weeks, prosecutors built a case that Kenneth Williams was behind the wheel of a white Nissan that was seen speeding away after a gunman fired multiple times into a crowd of Chicago students in a South Side park located less than a mile from Obama’s Kenwood home.

Williams was found guilty of first degree murder and two counts of aggravated battery as two other people were hit by bullets in the shooting. Jurors reached their verdict in fewer than three hours of deliberations.

Seated in the front row in the courtroom, across from the jury box, Pendleton’s mother Cleo Cowley Pendleton bowed her head as the clerk read the verdict. Across the courtroom, Williams bowed his head as well. Later, Pendleton’s relatives could be seen walking through the courthouse arm-in-arm as Cowley Pendleton wiped away tears.

A spokeswoman said family members didn’t plan to comment until after a verdict is reached in the case of Micheail Ward, who has been charged with firing the gun in the shooting.

But Williams’ role as the driver made him just as guilty of the killing, Assistant State’s Attorney Brian Holmes said in closing arguments Wednesday.

“Kenneth Williams is responsible for what Micheail Ward did,” Holmes said. “It’s just as if, in the eyes of the law, his hand is on that trigger.”

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Two sets of jurors have swapped in and out of the courtroom during the trial, with one group hearing evidence against Ward and the other against Williams. Ward’s returned to Judge Nicholas Ford’s courtroom Wednesday afternoon to hear defense witnesses. Closing arguments in Ward’s case will begin Thursday morning.

Jurors in Williams case did not view video of Ward’s videotaped confession that was played for Ward’s jury. On that video, Ward said it was Williams who handed him the gun and insisted that Ward carry out the shooting.Much of the case against Williams hinged on statements he allegedly made to fellow SUWU gang members just minutes after the shooting. Those witnesses were far less cooperative with prosecutors on the stand last week than they had been in front of a grand jury in 2013.

On the stand, prosecution witnesses Ernest Finner and Demetrius Tucker had recounted vividly being summoned to meet with their parole officers about a week after the shooting, only to be met by detectives probing the Pendleton shooting, who threatened them with probation violations if they didn’t answer questions.

Finner and Tucker previously told a grand jury that Williams said he and Ward had “done a drill” at the park, slang for shooting at rival gang members. But on the witness stand last week, they said they didn’t remember virtually any of their statements to police from five years earlier.

Defendant Kenneth Williams, listens as his guilty verdict is read during the trial for the fatal shooting of Hadiya Pendleton Wednesday. He is flanked by defense assistant Margaret McQuaid and defense attorney Matthew McQuaid. | Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tri
Defendant Kenneth Williams, listens as his guilty verdict is read during the trial for the fatal shooting of Hadiya Pendleton Wednesday. He is flanked by defense assistant Margaret McQuaid and defense attorney Matthew McQuaid. | Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Pool

The lone witness called by the defense was Northeastern University professor Lance Williams, a gang expert who has written books about the Gangster Disciples and teaches classes on hip-hop culture. Williams disputed statements made last week by a Chicago Police gang expert, Sgt. Jose Lopez, that Harsh Park sat in “gang territory,” noting that the park is in the affluent Kenwood neighborhood.

If this was gang territory, “You would see guys out selling drugs, you would see property marked with gang graffiti,” Prof. Williams said, as a video monitor played footage he’d filmed of the seemingly quiet, well-groomed streets around the park.

Prosecutors had played video of Williams and Ward mugging for the camera alongside alleged SUWU members in a music video posted to YouTube a few months before Pendleton was shot, but Prof. Williams said not everyone who appears in such “drill rap” videos is involved in gangs. He said that appearing to be part of violent gang culture has become aspirational for black teenagers since the late 1980s, which were marked by declines in the hierarchical structure of Chicago gangs and the rise of “gangsta rap.”

“You cannot just look at a person and say because they are associated with [gang culture] that they are a gangbanger,” Williams said.

In his closing statements, Williams’ attorney Matt McQuaid argued police had wrongly pegged Williams as a gang member, and that there was no physical evidence to tie him to the shooting. Prosecutors have said that Williams spotted the King students in Harsh Park, and handed off the gun to Ward because he feared being recognized because he’d gone to King himself. But McQuaid said Williams wouldn’t have accidentally targeted his classmates.

“He knew them. He went to King,” McQuaid said. Williams “would’ve had to misidentify gang members. The only one misidentifying high school kids as gang members is Sgt. Lopez.”

Williams’ uncle, Michael Beal, talking outside the courthouse, said his nephew was innocent.

“How are you going to convict somebody when you don’t have no evidence?” Beal asked.

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