In the chaos that followed a deadly March 2010 drive-by shooting in Southeast Washington, police officers were led on a car chase that ended in an alley not far from where it started. When it was over, a teenage boy was jailed, charged with a murder he didn’t commit — and, ultimately, held for more than three weeks before he was cleared.
Prosecutors say that mistake was understandable given the confusion caused by the shooting and the pursuit of four gunmen who ditched a rented minivan and ran.
But defense attorneys in the case of the men accused of plotting and carrying out the District’s deadliest series of shootings in decades hope a District jury will think it illustrates weaknesses in the prosecution’s case.
Sgt. Laswaun Washington told prosecutors during testimony in D.C. Superior Court on Thursday that he identified the then-14-year-old as the minivan’s driver when the van passed his patrol car as he drove to the scene of another shooting nearby.
When he saw the minivan, Washington said, he made a U-turn and began pursuit.
Washington, who has been on the force for 11 years, told Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Hegyi that he was certain when he identified the teen to other officers on the night of the drive-by shooting.
“Did you feel confident he was the driver?” Hegyi asked. “Yes, sir,” Washington said.
But Washington also told Hegyi that he only saw the driver for a few “seconds” — and never “square in the face.”
During heated cross-examination Thursday, Rudolph Acree — who is defending Orlando Carter, 22, one of five men on trial for first-degree murder in a string of shootings that culminated March 30 — challenged Washington’s account.
Washington told Acree that he did not have a “good look” at the driver when the minivan passed him.
And when Acree asked Washington to describe the driver, Washington said he saw a black male with a medium complexion and a low-cut haircut. That better described Acree’s client than the teen who wore shoulder-length dreadlocks in a photo the attorney showed in court.
“Was this the person you identified as the driver?” Acree asked, pointing to the teen’s picture. “I don’t know. No,” Washington said.
Acree said he was “confused” and asked the question again. Prosecutors objected, and Judge Ronna Beck told him to move on.
During a break in the trial, Acree said that Washington was trying to “cover” his mistake. Defense attorneys have indicated that they plan to use the teen’s arrest to illustrate shoddy police work; they have also assailed some of the prosecution’s witnesses, who face — or have have admitted to — felony charges.
A detailed account of the teen’s arrest — he was initially charged with 41 offenses, including multiple counts of first-degree murder —was compiled through interviews with law enforcement sources, lawyers familiar with the case and court papers.
As the chase came to an end, the men inside jumped out of the minivan in a wide, block-long alley in Southeast. The teen was also in the alley, according to people familiar with the case, and he ran when he saw police. Two officers tracked him to a nearby recreation center, and when they found him, he raised his hands in surrender.
The teen, who had a juvenile criminal record, had absconded from a group home for young offenders, and people familiar with the case later said they think he thought he was being chased for that reason.
Authorities came to realize that the teen was not involved in the attacks after Nathaniel Simms, 28, was arrested and confessed to his role. Simms pleaded guilty to five counts of second-degree murder and soon told authorities the teenager had nothing to do with the shootings.
Washington’s partner, Sgt. Tiffani Cowan, who was in the passenger seat of the cruiser during the chase, also identified the teen as the minivan’s driver on March 31, according to people familiar with the case. But she later changed her account, realizing her mistake when questioned by prosecutors, according to those sources.
Simms, meanwhile, has named Orlando Carter as the driver of the minivan and linked his co-defendants — Orlando’s brother Sanquan Carter, 21; Jeffrey Best, 23; Robert Bost, 23; and Lamar Williams, 23 — to three shootings between March 22 and March 30, 2010, that left five dead.
Simms has told authorities he had never met the teen, who was cleared. Prosecutors have said they have cellphone records showing that there were no calls between the teenager and Simms or any of the other men.
The trial is expected to continue Tuesday. Prosecutors have said they might complete their case next week.