More than five years after Hadiya Pendleton was gunned down in a South Side park just a week after she attended President Barack Obama’s inauguration, jurors entered a guilty verdict against the man who pulled the trigger.
Micheail Ward, 24, showed no reaction as the court clerk read off a guilty verdict for first-degree murder in Pendleton’s killing. Across the courtroom, seated in the front row of the gallery, Pendleton’s mother, father and younger brother leaned forward, seemingly relieved. A day earlier, the family had watched as a separate jury handed down a guilty verdict against Ward’s getaway driver, Kenneth Williams.
Addressing reporters in the courthouse lobby after the verdict, Cleo Cowley-Pendleton said the twin guilty verdicts were a relief after years of trips to the courthouse.
“My arms were raised yesterday and my tears today are because I feel like finally something positive in our life has happened as a result of our daughter being gone,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks. “There’s justice for Hadiya, because she did not deserve that. She did not live a life like that.
“We would rather have Hadiya, but the fact that we have justice for her life being taken, we’ll take it.”
“It’s surreal,” Hadiya’s father, Nathaniel Pendleton, said. “It’s something we’ve been waiting on for over five years.” Her killers, he said, “got what they deserved.”
Ward was 18 when he was arrested just hours after Pendleton’s funeral in 2013 and charged along with Williams. The arrest came after a weeklong hunt for suspects in a killing that had taken place in broad daylight at a park less than a mile from the Obamas’ Kenwood home. First Lady Michelle Obama attended Pendleton’s funeral, and the 15-year-old honor student’s murder became a symbol of the city’s struggle with violence.
Outlining the case against Ward Thursday in closing arguments, Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Brian Holmes highlighted Ward’s original confession. Holmes conceded the lack of physical evidence in the case but argued that a series of tentative identifications by witnesses and surveillance video of Ward’s car near the murder scene added up to a strong case.
“There’s no law that says we have to present a perfect case,” Holmes said, his voice rising. “It’s not a perfect world. In a perfect world, 15-year-old girls wouldn’t get shot in the back in the middle of a park.”
In the months before the trial, Ward’s lawyers had battled to keep jurors from seeing the confession, claiming Ward had parroted back a story that had been fed to him by detectives during multiple interrogations that spanned 12 hours. Once Judge Nicholas Ford ruled the confession would be played during the trial, Ward’s attorneys fought to have jurors watch more than four hours of the questioning, rather than the few minutes where Ward confessed.
In her closing statement, Assistant Public Defender Gina Piemonte said that media attention prompted police to quickly settle on Ward and Williams as suspects, tying thin leads into a narrative they fleshed out with statements from members of a gang that operated near the South Side park where Pendleton was shot.
“There was real real pressure on the police to solve the crime, and solve it quickly,” Piemonte said.
Prosecutors have said that Ward and Williams were members of the SUWU faction of the Gangster Disciples, a small band that had been shooting it out for months with the 4-6 Terror gang that frequented Harsh Park. Pendleton and a group of classmates had gone to the park after finishing final exams at King, and had ducked under a shelter there to take cover from the rain.
Williams, who had been shot six months earlier by a 4-6 Terror member, was driving Ward’s white Nissan into an alley, where, prosecutors said, he handed Ward a gun. The gunman opened fire on the group of the King students, who scattered. Pendleton stumbled and fell a block away, and died an hour later of a gunshot wound to the back.
Pendleton’s classmates had given equivocal identifications of Ward in lineups and photo arrays in the days after the shooting, though several seemed more confident in picking out Ward as the gunman at trial some five years later.
Alleged fellow gang members who took the stand for the prosecution suffered the opposite problem. After giving lengthy statements to detectives and testifying before the grand jury in 2013, at trial the SUWU gang members called by the state said they did not recall the statements they made implicating Ward and Williams in the shooting. On cross examination, one of them explained to Ward’s lawyer: “I do a lot of drugs, ma’am”
A lifelong friend of Ward’s, and member of the same gang faction to which Ward allegedly belonged, testified that several times in the days after the shooting, Ward admitted he had fired the shots that killed Pendleton and injured two of her King College Prep classmates. In those statements, Ward also confessed to remorse.