Five years ago, on rainy January afternoon in Chicago, gunshots rang out near Harsh Park on the city’s South Side. Teenagers, many of them students at nearby King College Prep High School who had taken shelter under a metal canopy in the park, scattered. Hadiya Pendleton fell, struck in the back. She died an hour later at a nearby children’s hospital.
Friday, jury selection begins in the trial of two men charged in Hadiya’s murder, with the fanfare surrounding the case having died down. Testimony is expected to begin as soon as Tuesday, with a verdict possible in less than two weeks.
In the intervening years, 206 teens have been killed among thousands of others in Chicago, but the death of 15-year-old Hadiya took a unique hold on the conscience of the city, and the nation. Hadiya, a drum majorette at King, had been part of the festivities for Chicago’s most famous resident, Barack Obama, ahead of his second inauguration. Harsh Park sits about a mile from the now-former president’s home in Kenwood.
The shootings — a 16-year-old boy was hit in the leg by one of the half-dozen shots purportedly fired at the crowd under the shelter — came to symbolize the violence of the president’s hometown, a city that in most years leads the nation in the total number of murders. Michelle Obama would attend Hadiya’s funeral; Micheail Ward, 18, and Kenneth Williams, 20, were arrested the same day.
Here’s a rundown of the case:
What happened in Harsh Park?
Hadiya was hanging out with friends after final exams when gunfire erupted. Prosecutors say Ward and Williams were members of the SUWU street gang that operates in the surrounding neighborhoods, and were looking to take out members of the rival 4-6 Terror gang when they mistakenly opened fire on Hadiya’s group. Ward allegedly told police Williams had threatened to kill him if he didn’t act as the trigger man. Hadiya died soon after at a hospital.
Prosecutors tracked down the pair after identifying Ward’s Nissan Sentra as the white car that had been seen speeding away from the park. Defense lawyers say the intense pressure on detectives to close the case led them to bully Ward into a confession and pin the case on him and Williams with little evidence.
The case against Ward and Williams
No one identified either Ward or Williams as the shooters immediately after the shooting, and no murder weapon has been found, leaving prosecutors to rely heavily on a circumstantial case built largely on a detailed confession Ward gave, and statements Williams reportedly made to fellow SUWU members that he and Ward had “done a drill” — slang for committing a shooting.
The case against the case against Ward and Williams
Ward gave his confession after nearly 48 hours in custody, after two teams of detectives had spent hours interrogating him. But Ward almost immediately disavowed his confession, and the two gang members who initially said they overheard the “done a drill” comment by Williams both have recanted. Expect Assistant Public Defender Julie Koehler to attack what she has called the coercive techniques used by detectives to manipulate her client into a false confession — though her attempts to have an interrogation expert testify were thwarted by Judge Nicholas Ford.
The trial is likely to open with Cleo Cowley-Pendleton, Hadiya’s mom, taking the stand as what is referred to as a “life/death witness” to establish merely that the victim once was alive, and now is dead. In practice, the testimony often is used to draw a sympathetic portrait of the murder victim. Cowley-Pendleton has spent the years since her daughter’s murder telling the story as a call to action for anti-violence efforts and gun-control.
Other testimony is likely to come from Hadiya’s friends who were at the park during the shooting. While none of them were able to identify Ward or Williams as the shooters, they can describe the terror of Hadiya’s final moments, as well as reinforce to the jury how she was an honor student who didn’t take part in the city’s senseless violence.
Koehler’s cross examination of the detectives in the case will be her best chance to draw attention to police interview techniques that she claims were used to feed her client a story to repeat as a false confession. Williams, who demanded a lawyer soon after he was taken into custody, made no confession.
Both Koehler and Williams’ attorney, Matthew McQuaid, can be expected to attempt to discredit the now-recanted testimony of two gang members who said Williams essentially admitted involvement in the shooting. Prosecutors James Papa and Brian Holmes will emphasize the gang members’ original sworn statements, and police gang experts are expected to say that threats, intimidation and the code of the streets frequently lead gang members to refuse to testify.
And, while no eyewitness could pick out Ward or Williams as the shooter in the days immediately after the shooting, prosecutors last month added Stephan Abdul to a list of witnesses. Abdul, who was at the park, recently came forward and named Ward as the shooter, though defense attorneys said Abdul was coached into the identification.