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Violence Intersects Lives of Promise

Under the most recent public health definitions, deaths up to 12 months postpartum are considered "associated" with pregnancy. Sometimes experts look into cases to determine whether pregnancy was a factor -- and if a death might have been prevented.

In the District, Shirlita Colon was just 14 when she found out she was pregnant. Her mother was not happy about it but concluded that it was a young girl's mistake, an accident. "You do what you feel you can live with," she told her daughter, known as Shirley.

Shirlita Colon's mother, Tawana Colon, right, and sister, Tysha Colon, talk with Catina Edwards, left, at court in the District while awaiting the sentencing of Donte Allen in Shirlita's killing. (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

_____About This Series_____

The Toll: Researchers are just beginning to discover what has been a hidden risk of pregnancy: Pregnant women and new mothers are more likely to be victims of homicide than to die of any single natural cause, several statewide studies have shown.

The Victims: As public health experts focus new attention on homicide during pregnancy, the Washington region has become a focal point. Research rarely casts light on the lives of those who were slain or how violence entered their lives at such a pivotal time.

The Legacy: The tragedy of maternal homicide lingers in the lives of children left behind, some of them born as their mothers were dying. Older siblings sometimes witnessed the violence. The children often must be raised by their grandparents.

Video: Recovering at Ceeatta's House
Photo Gallery: The Missing Stories
Photo Gallery: Caring for a Lost Daughter's Son
Maternal Homicide in D.C. Area
_____From The Post_____
Mending Shattered Childhoods (The Washington Post, Dec 21, 2004)
Bittersweet Childhoods of Love and Loss (The Washington Post, Dec 21, 2004)
States Add Penalties For Death of Unborn (The Washington Post, Dec 20, 2004)
Many New or Expectant Mothers Die Violent Deaths (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
Researchers Stunned By Scope of Slayings (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
How the Series Was Reported (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
_____For Information or Help_____
National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE
D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 202-299-1181
Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, 301-352-4574
Virginians Against Domestic Violence, 804-377-0335
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"I want my baby," the teenager told her with certainty.

Her older sister had given birth at 15, and Shirley admired the way she had been a mother and still managed to make great things happen in her life, with shelves of trophies in the family's District apartment and a track scholarship to George Mason University.

Their mother told Shirley she would help with the baby as long Shirley continued her education.

Shirley promised to return to classes after her baby was born. Having just completed ninth grade, she was still unclear about what she wanted in life. Maybe fashion design -- she had created her own gown for the eighth-grade prom -- maybe something else entirely. Everyone told her she had a gift for comedy, the ability to make even her most reluctant friends laugh.

During her pregnancy, Shirley stayed close to home, in the family's third-floor apartment in Benning Terrace. She kept her doctor appointments, took her vitamins and watched the movies that the prenatal clinic showed on parenting, her mother said.

The baby's father did not share her enthusiasm. Donte Allen had been her first boyfriend, back in seventh grade, when she was a cheerleader and both attended Fletcher Johnson Educational Center. He did not seem violent or dangerous in any way, her mother said.

Allen had little to do with Shirley during her pregnancy, and when she delivered her daughter Feb. 28, 2002, he was not around.

Shirley named the infant Destiny, decided to breastfeed her, thinking it was best for her baby, and doted on her "like a baby doll," her mother said.

"She was changing her clothes three or four times a day," her mother, Tawana Colon, recalled.

In the weeks after Destiny's birth, Allen dropped by briefly once or twice. "I don't think he believed Destiny was his," her mother said. Then, one Sunday in May, he stopped by again, and he and Shirley talked in a stairwell outside her family's apartment. They began to argue. One neighbor said Shirley asked him for money for Pampers.

Shortly afterward, Shirley asked her sister to watch the baby for five minutes, ran outside and climbed into a car with Allen and a friend.

The three drove behind a church -- where Allen pulled out a gun.

At first, Shirley thought he was joking, according to court testimony. Then she ran. As she tried to jump a fence, Allen, 17, shot her in the head. When she fell to the ground, he stood over her and shot her again.

By the time her family arrived, police lights were flashing and yellow tape was strung around the crime scene. Tawana Colon screamed and tried to push through the police barricade to reach her daughter. Finally, she dropped to her knees, she recalled, and prayed: "God, let this not be true."

It was Mother's Day -- and Shirley had been a mother just 10 1/2 weeks.

At Allen's trial, prosecutors said the teenager was so deliberate about the killing that he had taken off a favorite football jersey so it wouldn't get bloodstained. One friend testified that Allen had explained the shooting a few days afterward by saying, "I'm too young to be a father."

Shirley's mother said that the family had never asked for child support and that she had not imagined he could pay anything, at 17 years old. Shirley, she said, "trusted this guy. I believe my baby died in shock, not believing he would do something like this to her. That's what hurts me so bad."

The jury came back with a guilty verdict, on a charge of first-degree murder, and in July 2003 Allen was sentenced to 45 years in prison. Shirley's father, Isaac Colon II, stood outside the courthouse, feeling little satisfaction. "It's not enough," he said. "My daughter doesn't have a life. Destiny doesn't have a mother for the rest of her life."

Staff writer David S. Fallis and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

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