Viva Whiteing stepped to a microphone last Friday at D.C. Superior Court. She faced the judge, because she was ostensibly there to help him decide on a sentence for Jaycee Byrd. But her words spoke to Byrd himself, the 19-year-old in an orange jumpsuit sitting six feet away.
"Jaycee, remember my face," Whiteing said. "This is the face that will pray every day for your destruction."
At those angry words, a boy on Byrd's side of the courtroom gallery began to sob and then ran out of the room. But Whiteing continued.
"When you fall," she said, "remember my face. When you are sick, remember my face. When you are hurting, remember my face. When you cry, remember my face. And most of all, remember these words: What goes around comes around, and your day is coming."
On Sept. 28, 2001, Wesley Whiteing was killed in the middle of the day on busy Mississippi Avenue SE after Byrd and another man tried to rob him at gunpoint of his $600 Avirex leather jacket. Authorities said that Whiteing, who was carrying his own handgun, tried to draw after being told to "come off that jacket." He was shot four times, with one bullet penetrating his heart.
Viva Whiteing, Wesley's wife of 18 months, had thrown him out of the house that morning after a fight. "Don't ever come back," she told him. At 1 p.m., he was killed just down the hill from her home, on Halley Place SE. Since that day, Viva Whiteing said she's been through all the known stages of grief, and might have discovered a few new ones.
First, there was denial, when her husband's grandmother called and said that D.C. police detectives had come by her house with his wallet. "No, that's impossible," Viva Whiteing remembers saying. "I just saw my husband." She insisted on being driven to the soul food restaurant in Prince George's County where her husband worked at night. There his boss confirmed it: Wesley hadn't come in.
Then, there were weeks of deep, debilitating mourning, when she didn't leave her room even for the family Christmas celebration. She left her two children, Keith, now 9, and Kyree, 5, in the care of her mother.
"My kids had to watch me cry every day. And they were, like, loud screams," she said. "I mean, I didn't softly cry."
Then, Whiteing said, she was persuaded to get up and do something. Part of her inspiration, she said, was her mother, and part was a TV news segment on Kenneth Barnes Sr., the father of a slain U Street shopkeeper who dedicated himself to helping the families of homicide victims.
She said she began doing her own investigation of her husband's murder, dating a man who lived in the same complex as Byrd, and looking for witnesses near the scene.
"They took everything from me," she says she decided. "They can't take nothing else from me, so I ain't scared."
It was unclear how much her efforts actually helped in the prosecution of Byrd, who was already in custody at the time. He was identified as a suspect by an anonymous tip on the day of the shooting and arrested a week later. Some of the most damning evidence against him seems to have come from his accomplice, William Mason, who has pleaded guilty to manslaughter and faces up to 30 years in prison.
But after her investigative efforts, Whiteing found a creative outlet: She said she is on the dean's list at Parks College in Arlington, studying criminal justice. She said she hopes to be a D.C. parole officer.
Still, even as she's righted her life, bad things remain. Her husband is gone, and she never even got his jacket back. Her children are so scared of violence that they refuse to play outside except in their own back yard.
At the sentencing hearing Friday, she was angry again.
"I have tried vigorously to understand why my husband was murdered and left in the streets to die as if he was an animal," she read from a statement she had written out in advance. "Today, I know the answer . . . a coat!"
"With all sincerity," she concluded, speaking again to Byrd, "I hope that God will forgive you because I never will."
Her speech was the only emotional note in the hearing. Byrd said nothing. Judge Shellie F. Bowersbriefly lectured the youth. "The whole thing was so foolish, so callous. All over a jacket, over an Avirex jacket," Bowers said. "I mean, how cheap is life?" He then sentenced Byrd to 50 years in prison.
Bowers did not pronounce that number all at once, but slowly and haltingly read off the sentences for each count. Murder: 40 years. Possession of a firearm during a crime of violence: eight years. Carrying a pistol without a license: two years. For most of this time, Byrd either looked down at the defense table through heavy eyelids or kept his eyes closed. It was impossible to tell from the gallery.