Families of kids shot to death beg D.C. to toughen its laws
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Nardyne Jefferies, dressed in black, held up two photos of her 16-year-old daughter Monday as she prepared to address the D.C. Council. The first, a 10th-grade class picture, showed her daughter smiling broadly. The second, from a funeral home, showed her with a gunshot wound to her head.
Jefferies was among the family members of four teenagers killed in a drive-by shooting last month on South Capitol Street who pleaded with council members to strengthen the city's criminal penalties and to do more to keep violent offenders off the streets.
Jefferies's daughter, Brishell Jones, was an aspiring chef who was with friends just blocks from her Southwest home March 30 when she was killed by assailants who sprayed a crowded street with an AK-47-style assault weapon. Three suspects -- Orlando Carter, 20, Nathaniel Simms, 26, and a juvenile, all of the District -- have been arrested and face multiple charges in the attack, the city's deadliest outbreak of violence in years.
In testimony marked with anger, frustration and sadness, family members said the District's justice and juvenile offender systems had failed their children by allowing the suspects, as Jefferies said, to "roam the streets and prey on innocent children."
"I don't think anyone in the public feels safe," she said as she urged the council to change what she called outdated and lenient laws.
Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who presided over the hearing of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, said he shared the frustration of those testifying.
"If you are angry, you have every right to be angry," he said. "There have to be consequences."
The hearing came as Congress was scheduled to take up legislation this week that would repeal most of the District's gun-control laws. The gun language is attached to a bill that would give the city its first voting member in the House and has forced elected officials to essentially choose between voting rights for the District and the autonomy to support legislation that would restrict gun possession.
Kenny Barnes, head of a D.C. anti-violence organization whose son was killed in 2001, said the federal legislation was "absolutely insane and makes no sense at all," coming just weeks after the mass shooting.
Relatives and community leaders who testified Monday called on elected officials to overhaul the city's system for minors who commit crimes, which they said has become a revolving door for repeat offenders. Witnesses noted that the 14-year-old suspect, who police say drove the minivan used in the drive-by shooting, has a long list of convictions and has been placed numerous times in the custody of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Court officials have said that the suspect fled from custody before the attack.
"This is not working," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "We have a revolving door of youthful offenders who have nothing to fear from the courts, from DYRS. What they are most afraid of is what is going to happen to them on the streets."
Graham said he will introduce legislation Tuesday that would create a commission to reform the system for dealing with repeat violent youth offenders and to empower judges to order secured detentions more quickly.
At times the testimony Monday turned angry. Ronald Moten, co-founder of the anti-violence group Peaceoholics, and other community leaders criticized elected officials for not providing more job opportunities and resources for at-risk minors in Ward 8, which has an unemployment rate of 27 percent. Moten's nonprofit group has been forced to lay off workers and move out of its headquarters after losing millions of dollars in city government funding.
"We've got the answers. You all just don't listen," said Moten, who wore white gloves with red handprints that he flashed at the dais. "You all got blood on your hands."
Police have linked the drive-by attack in the Washington Highlands neighborhood to the fatal shooting one week earlier of Jordan Howe, 20. According to investigators, that incident was prompted by anger over a man's missing gold-colored bracelet. Howe did not take the bracelet, police said in an affidavit. Some of the victims in the March 30 shooting had just attended Howe's funeral.
Howe's father, Norman Williams, threw up his hands and stormed out of the hearing room Monday when the discussion turned to politics and program funding.
"I came here for justice, to talk to you directly about why this happened and how it can be prevented," he said before walking out. "I lost a child. All the money in the world can't bring that child back."