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Getaway driver sentenced to 42 years in prison for Hadiya Pendleton murder

Kenneth Williams was convicted in 2018 of the 15-year-old’s murder.

Defendant Kenneth Williams listens during his trial on Aug. 22, 2018.
Defendant Kenneth Williams listens during his trial in August 2018.
Sun-Times file

A Cook County judge Tuesday handed down a 42-year prison sentence for the getaway driver who sped 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton’s killer away from the South Side park where she was gunned down more than eight years ago.

Kenneth Williams, now 28, was convicted of Pendleton’s murder in 2018, but his sentencing was delayed for nearly three years in a case that became emblematic of Chicago’s gun violence.

On Tuesday, Judge Diana Kenworthy told Williams he would serve 35 years in prison for the honor student’s murder and an additional seven years on aggravated battery charges in the shooting that also wounded two other teenagers.

Williams was more than just a getaway driver, the judge said in her ruling.

“[Williams] was not taken by surprise,” Kenworthy said of testimony at Williams’ trial that the pair was hunting for members of a rival gang faction. “They were looking for people to shoot.”

Hadiya Pendleton’s parents, Cleopatra Cowley (center) and Nathaniel Pendleton Sr. (left), walk with supporters Tuesday afternoon into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse.
Hadiya Pendleton’s parents, Cleopatra Cowley (center) and Nathaniel Pendleton Sr. (left), walk with supporters Tuesday afternoon into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Pendleton was with a group of teenagers celebrating the end of finals on Jan. 20, 2013, in Harsh Park when gunman Micheail Ward opened fire, Assistant State’s Attorney Brian Holmes said at the sentencing hearing.

She was struck in the back less than a mile from President Barack Obama’s Kenwood home. The King College Prep High School student and majorette had preformed at Obama’s inauguration less than two weeks earlier.

Williams was behind the wheel of a white Nissan that drove Ward away from the scene and later told friends he and Ward had “done a drill” at the park, slang for a shooting, Holmes said. Williams hadn’t wanted to do the shooting himself because he was a former King College Prep student and was worried he’d be identified.

“He knew by his own statements that park was filled with King High school students,” the prosecutor said.

Both teens were arrested on the day of Pendleton’s funeral, which was nationally televised and attended by first lady Michelle Obama.

Ward was convicted and sentenced in 2019 to 84 years in prison, which he is currently serving downstate at the Pontiac Correctional Center, prison records show.

Nate Pendleton Jr., then 11, stands next to a photograph of his late sister “Hadiya” who was killed in January 2013 from gun violence during the launching of “Hadiya’s Promise, a national, non-profit organization focused on the welfare of young people during a press conference at the Martin Luther King Center in Chicago on June 13, 2014.
Nate Pendleton Jr., then 11 in 2014, stands next to a photograph of his late sister “Hadiya” who was killed in January 2013 from gun violence during the launching of “Hadiya’s Promise, a national, non-profit organization focused on the welfare of young people.
Michael Jarecki/File photo for Sun-Times

Cleopatra Cowley, Pendleton’s mother, recalled her daughter’s unlimited potential on the stand Tuesday, saying the girl had dreamed of being of journalist, going into politics or even becoming a veterinarian.

Nathaniel Pendleton Jr., said he would be “forever scarred by the loss of my sister.”

Williams was walked into the small, second-floor courtroom at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on Tuesday in a yellow jumpsuit and declared he didn’t consent to the hearings. The judge explained Williams, who had decided to represent himself, had been following the ideas of the Sovereign Citizen movement, which doesn’t see itself as subject to the laws and courts of the United States.

Williams presented himself confidently during the proceedings but also showed moments of vulnerability.

After taking the stand to make a statement to Pendleton’s family, the young man — who had never before been charged with a crime — teared up and said he needed time to collect himself.

When he took the stand again later, Williams’ comments danced between claims he had been “misjudged” and the frequency with which he dwelled on the pain Pendleton’s family has had to “endure.”

“Mrs. Cowley, I think about you every day, because the deepest bond I have is with my mother,” Williams said, without ever taking responsibility for the shooting.

Following the hearing, Cowley said she believed Williams had admitted his wrongdoing in his own way.

“He said he wasn’t going to take responsibility, but he thinks about us every day,” she said.

The family said that even though Williams will now start serving his sentence, they have been serving a type of life sentence of their own since the day Hadiya was killed.

“It ends court,” Cowley said of the hearing’s finality.

“Every day we are without the ability to speak with her, to hold her, to dream with her ... there’s no off button, just the absence of the court system.”