By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, October 3, 2006
Two rooms, one block apart, two worlds:
In the federal courthouse downtown, a platoon of lawyers, representing easily $10,000 in nicely tailored wool suits, wage battle over the government's three-year investigation of Douglas Jemal, the daring developer who has done more than anyone else in Washington's private sector to transform a dead downtown into an alluring, vibrant cityscape.
Day after dreary day, before a jury that is nodding off and zoning out, government lawyers painstakingly plow through invoice after invoice -- janitorial services, building contractors, repairmen -- trying to build a case that Jemal ripped off the District's taxpayers by bribing a city official and landing highly profitable city leases.
Tens of thousands of documents sit on shelf after shelf of binders, and a blizzard of invoices and tax forms roll by on fancy flat-screen monitors -- all over a bunch of Wizards tickets, a Rolex and some nice dinners. Most of the time, nobody watches except relatives of the accused and people who are paid to be in the courtroom. Somebody wants Jemal taken down, and you and I get to pay the freight.
One block away, in D.C. Superior Court, in a noisy, dirty courtroom where every seat is always taken, the lawyers are at a lower pay grade: The suits are off the shelf; a skirt has a split in the rear. And the matter at hand is one of life, death and wrenching questions about who we are and why we live the way we do.
This is the trial of the two men who allegedly killed Princess Hansen, the 14-year-old girl who died because she had witnessed another killing and somebody decided that she had to be silenced before she snitched.
In this room, the jurors are riveted. Here, we all descend into a world of despair and dysfunction.
Shawnta Collier, 23, testifying about a murder that took place outside her apartment door in the terrifying Northwest Washington neighborhood known as Sursum Corda, tells the jury that the dead man, Mario Evans, earned money by "doing his thing."
"What was his thing?" asks prosecutor Michelle Jackson.
"On the streets."
"Did he sell drugs on the streets?"
"Mm-hmm," Collier says, with a big smile.
A room full of knowing titters quickly hushes as Collier is presented with a big color photo of Evans lying face up in a pool of his own blood.
As in that other room a block away, there are characters here who once seemed larger than life. Doug Jemal works this town on guts, gall and a little bit of greed. He traverses his city in gaudy Western boots, driving a big black pickup truck, downing big steaks, taking big gambles on properties more cautious developers won't touch. Jemal, 63, put retailers back in the empty old Woodies building, built a block of stores on Seventh Street NW when no one else would go near the place, saved the Avalon Theatre in Chevy Chase, rescued the Sixth & I Street Historic Synagogue, and on and on.
The defendants in the Princess Hansen case, Marquette Ward and Franklin Thompson, were nicknamed Corleone and Nitti after Hollywood's Godfather and the real-life Al Capone henchman. But these guys never built a thing. They were worms in the drug trade, small-time thugs only as powerful as the weapons in their waistbands.
Yet they were almost heroic figures in Sursum Corda. When Timika Destiny Holiday, 21, tells the jury that she saw Ward shoot Evans because of a $10 price dispute over a PCP dipper, prosecutor Deborah Sines asks the witness if she had a relationship with Ward.
"It wasn't a relationship. We just had sexual intercourse," Holiday says.
Minutes later, Holiday testifies that Hansen, too, had sex with Ward. Who was also the 14-year-old's marijuana supplier. That's fourteen.
In this courtroom, the rules of life seem much looser than at the Jemal trial. When a defense lawyer argues that the Hansen jury should learn about PCP that was missing from the pocket of a dead drug dealer, Judge Wendell Gardner scoffs: "Of course it'd be missing. That's money. PCP is money. You think they're going to let the PCP walk out the door in the policeman's pocket? Oh, come on."
Money in this world comes in the form of the stacks of cash that dealers carry. Holiday describes Evans's stack by holding her thumb and forefinger apart. The prosecutor characterizes that as "two inches," but the defense lawyer wants the witness's own description. Is it two inches? Holiday, a high school dropout, demurs. She hasn't a clue what an inch is.
In the Jemal trial, discussion of money takes place on another plane entirely. Here, dissecting a world of refinancings and lines of credit, jurors are asked to find nefarious deeds in a forest of invoices for bits of construction work and cleaning services.
Jemal's trial will drag on for weeks. "This is 39 witnesses already," he told me after court one day. "What a waste. Go ahead, pay some more taxes."
Jemal will likely walk. If he did commit crimes, he should be punished, but the ledger of Jemal's life will still show far more successes than infractions. And what will have been accomplished? A whole lot of lawyers will be a whole lot richer. If Jemal's daring is diminished, the city's progress will be stunted. And the public will know what everyone already knew: Jemal isn't much for rules.
The Hansen trial will likely end with two more bad guys going away for a long time. And life in Sursum Corda will change not even those two inches that a 21-year-old woman couldn't fathom.