Hadiya Pendleton murder conviction overturned; new trial ordered in Chicago teen’s slaying

Micheail Ward was sentenced to 84 years for the 2013 killing of the 15-year-old honor student, who had just returned from Obama’s second inauguration.

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In this file photo, Micheail Ward listens to testimony in trial in the fatal shooting of Hadiya Pendleton in 2018.

In this file photo, Micheail Ward listens to 2018 trial testimony in the fatal shooting of King College Prep student Hadiya Pendleton. He was sentenced to 84 years in prison for Pendleton’s 2013 murder, but an appeals court on Friday overturned his conviction.

Sun-Times File

In a ruling that comes just a few months past the 10-year anniversary of Hadiya Pendleton’s death, an appeals court has ordered a new trial for the man charged with gunning down the 15-year-old honor student.

Micheail Ward in 2018 was found guilty and sentenced to 84 years in prison for the murder of Pendleton, a slaying that took place just days after Pendleton had returned from performing in Washington, D.C., with her high school band at a celebration ahead of Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration.

The then 18-year-old Ward admitted shooting Pendleton during an interrogation that spanned 12 hours, but a three-judge panel of the state 1st District Appellate Court ruled Friday that Ward on at least three occasions insisted he no longer wanted to talk to detectives, who continued the questioning — and secured his confession — in violation of his rights.

The “detectives temporarily halted the interrogation each time Mr. Ward said he had nothing else to say, nothing to say, and did not want to say anything else. However, Mr. Ward was never given a fresh set of Miranda warnings, and the detectives never interrogated Mr. Ward about anything other than the shooting,” Judge Mary Mikva wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel.

“The statements Mr. Ward made after he invoked his right to remain silent are therefore inadmissible, and the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress them.”

Reached Friday, Pendleton’s mother, Cleo Cowley-Pendleton wrote in a text message that she was “disappointed and devastated” by the ruling.

A spokeswoman for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said the office was “reviewing the matter to determine next legal steps.” Ward’s co-defendant, alleged getaway driver Kenneth Williams, was found guilty as well and received a 42-year sentence, and he also has a pending appeal.

Hadiya Pendleton.

Hadiya Pendleton

Family photo

Ward’s lawyers also said the trial judge erred by barring them from presenting expert testimony on false confessions and “coercive” interrogation techniques used by the detectives who questioned Ward, and they noted that details in Ward’s confession seemed to indicate that Ward identified the location of the shooting as a park blocks away from a different, smaller park where Pendleton was killed.

While saying the evidence against Ward was strong enough to merit a second trial even without his confession, Judge Mikva noted the witnesses who identified Ward at trial five years after the shooting were more equivocal in their initial statements to police. One witness, who made an uncertain identification of Ward in the days immediately after the shooting, took the stand five years later and said he was “100 percent, guaranteed” certain that Ward was the killer.

Without the confession, the state’s case relies on the witness identifications and testimony from two friends of Ward and Williams, who told police the pair picked them up in the getaway car soon after the shooting and made incriminating statements. No murder weapon or other physical evidence connects Ward to the shooting, the opinion notes.

The lead prosecutor on the case, Brian Holmes, has retired, as has Judge Nicholas Ford, who frequently bickered with Ward’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Julie Koehler.

Cleo Cowley Pendleton and Nathaniel Pendleton Sr., parents of Hadiya Pendleton, listen during the sentencing hearing of Mickieal Ward at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago on Jan. 14, 2019.

Cleo Cowley-Pendleton and Nathaniel Pendleton Sr., parents of Hadiya Pendleton, listen during the sentencing hearing of Micheail Ward in Chicago on Jan. 14, 2019.

Jose M. Osorio | Chicago Tribune/Pool

In his appeal, Ward’s lawyers also cited Holmes’ referring to the defense case as “chicken shit” during his closing statement, as further grounds for a new trial.

After leaving the campus of King College Prep on an unseasonably warm January afternoon, Pendleton and a half-dozen classmates had gathered under a shelter in Harsh Park in North Kenwood when a gunman opened fire from a nearby alley. The teens scattered, and Pendleton was struck once in the back as she fled, collapsing in the arms of her friend, Klyn Jones.

After the shooting, police quickly turned their attention to members of the Suwu street gang faction, which had been feuding with the 46 Terror gang that counted Harsh Park as their territory.

One of the detectives who interrogated Ward was John Halloran, who has been named by numerous defendants in wrongful conviction cases. Halloran has been accused of abusing suspects and in at least six cases, secured confessions from suspects who were later cleared by DNA or other evidence. Halloran has denied abusing suspects.

The park itself was less than a mile from Obama’s Chicago home, and Michelle Obama attended Pendleton’s funeral. Weeks later, her parents sat beside the first lady at the State of the Union address.

Koehler said Friday she looked forward to a second trial and wasn’t surprised by the court’s order.

“The first time I saw his confession years ago, I knew it was going to be suppressed, because it was faulty on the facts and it violated his rights,” she said. “I have watched Micheail grow up in prison, from a 17-, 18-year-old to almost 30. It’s just a sad case. It’s been nothing but tragedy.”

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