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Gang members’ faulty memories slow Hadiya Pendleton murder trial

Judge George Canellis is questioned by prosecutor James Papa during the trial for the fatal shooting of Hadiya Pendleton at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago on Tuesday, Aug. 15 ,2018. Defendant Micheail Ward and co-defendant Kenneth Williams are on trial for the shooting. | Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Pool

The face on the courtroom monitor screen was a familiar one. In the nearly six years since Hadiya Pendleton was gunned down in a South Side park, newspapers and television reports have featured countless pictures of the 15-year-old honor student’s smiling face. On Wednesday, on the second day of the trial of two men charged with Pendleton’s murder, prosecutors entered her autopsy photos into evidence.

The moment, fairly routine in murder cases, passed quietly. Seated among a dozen relatives in the courtroom gallery, Pendleton’s mother, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, sat still as her daughter’s lifeless face flashed on and off the screen. Some family members placed their hands on others’ backs in a comforting gesture. Tissues were passed around.

Assistant Cook County Medical Examiner Lauren Woertz testified that Pendleton died from a gunshot wound to her back. The bullet traveled upward through Pendleton’s body and out her chest. The manner of death was homicide.

“She was a young, healthy girl,” Woertz said.

Dr. Lauren Woertz, a Cook County assistant medical examiner, takes the stand in the trial for the fatal shooting of Hadiya Pendleton on Tuesday. | Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Pool

The bulk of the day was spent on testimony from three members of the SUWU streetgang, all childhood friends of co-defendants Micheail Ward and Kenneth Williams. The monitor played a low-production value music video and surveillance camera footage of two carloads of SUWUs pulling up to a gas station not long after the shooting.

Prosecutors had introduced the music video to show Ward and Williams bobbing along to the beat and throwing up gang signs while shoulder-to-shoulder with SUWUs who testified as prosecution witnesses. The gas station footage showed Williams and Ward were in Ward’s white Nissan together the day of the shooting, alongside other SUWUs.

Defendant Micheail Ward and co-defendant Kenneth Williams (not pictured) are on trial for the fatal shooting of Hadiya Pendleton, at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago on Tuesday, Aug. 15 ,2018. | Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Pool

Assistant State’s Attorney James Papa got some help from the trio of SUWUs who took the stand, so long as there was video evidence. While the gang members were willing to testify and confirm who was in the cars, they each claimed they could no longer remember other details — such as alleged confessions Ward and Williams made immediately after the shooting and the days that followed.

Statements SUWU members made to detectives and a grand jury back in 2013 are crucial evidence prosecutors used to flesh out a largely circumstantial case against Ward, the alleged gunman, and Williams, charged with driving the getaway car.

Nathaniel Pendleton Sr. and Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, parents of Hadiya Pendleton, at Hadiya’s murder trial Tuesday. | Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune pool photo

Tyron Lawrence declined to even describe the SUWUs as a “gang.” Demetrius Tucker denied making statements recorded by a court reporter in front of the grand jury. Jarod Randolph said his recollections were blurred by drug use — codeine and Percocet, specifically.

“I do a lot of drugs, ma’am,” Randolph told Ward’s lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Julie Koehler, when she asked about his memory problems on cross-examination.

Prosecutors confronted their reluctant witnesses with the grand jury transcripts, and suggested no reason why their memories had failed. Koehler said that Tucker had told her in a jailhouse interview a year ago that he’d been bullied by detectives, who  told him they would see him jailed for parole violations if he didn’t help them pin the murder on Ward and Williams.

Pendleton’s murder was apparently a hot topic among the SUWUs, as it was across the nation. The 15-year-old honor student had performed with the King College Prep High School band during festivities for Barack Obama’s second inauguration days before she was killed.

In front of the grand jury, Randolph and Tucker said the gang convened a meeting — the day before Williams and Ward were arrested — to discuss the fallout from the shooting and order members to stay silent. In response to a string of questions, Randolph said he couldn’t recall anything about the meeting, nor about any of the multiple occasions when he’d previously said Ward had confessed to killing Pendleton.

“Did [Ward} tell you he felt ‘bogus as hell’ and wished he never did it?” Assistant State’s Attorney James Papa asked, paraphrasing Randolph’s grand jury statements.

“I don’t’ recall him telling me that,” Randolph said.