Her jailed sons, the accused killers of 8-year-old Chelsea Cromartie, are not allowed to see visitors at the same time. One goes out and then the other walks in when their mother comes to see them.
Last week, as they passed each other at the D.C. jail, the brothers reached out to touch each other's handcuffed fists. Cheryl Hall, describing the encounter with her sons, said the image brought home the horror of everything that has happened this month.
"Everybody is going through their own private hell right now," she said.
Raashed and Ricardo Hall, the baby boys of a close-knit family, are charged with first-degree murder. They and their family are confronting both the legal implications of the case and its moral underpinnings. The two brothers have told investigators that they are responsible for the stray gunshot that killed Chelsea on May 3 as she sat in a living room watching television.
Raashed was disconsolate in a recent telephone conversation, said his aunt, Patricia Ellis.
Melody McKeython, his 20-year-old sister, nodded. "He's worried about jail, but he's more worried about God."
"About forgiveness," Ellis explained. "He wanted to know if God can forgive him. His conscience is whipping up on him real bad. That little girl is dead. It's terrible."
Once police began focusing on him, several days after the shooting, Raashed, 21, gave detectives a videotaped statement describing how he fired the shots to avenge a dispute at a nearby carryout. Ricardo, 23, gave a videotaped account as well and told police where to find the gun. Their father went to the Cromartie family to apologize.
"At the proper time, we'd all like to go to Chelsea's family and apologize and pay our respects," Ellis said. "This is just not who we are. It's not who the boys are."
Raashed and Ricardo, born 22 months apart, were inseparable from the beginning.
They and their three siblings came of age in the same house everyone in the family did: the brick rowhouse on the southeastern edge of Capitol Hill, bought by their grandmother a half-century ago, a place that remains a magnet for the family.
The Halls were church-going hard workers, office managers and typists and caregivers and television technicians. Cheryl Hall and Rick McKeython stressed the values of family, education, church and honest effort to their children. The family picture album is filled with snapshots from birthday parties, outings to New York and Hershey Park and around-the-house ventures.
"Sunday morning, the boys were in suits and ties and me in a dress," said Melody McKeython, the younger sister. "There were no exceptions and no excuses. At home, you couldn't just say you were going down the street. Our parents were very strict; they were very concerned. We did everything with a cousin or a brother or sister."
Rick McKeython and Hall divorced when the boys were in middle school, family members said. The boys moved in with their father, a few miles away, but the family remained close.
Ricardo graduated from Phelps Career Senior High School and Raashed, from Woodson Senior High School, both in Northeast Washington. Raashed left no indelible impression on his teachers or school administrators, said Bob Headen, dean of students and athletic director. He was known to come to sporting events, although he did not play. He lived near the school and was frequently around the school grounds, a friendly, unassuming kid who was in group pictures but rarely the center of any of them. He didn't start trouble or hang out with those who did.
"I had to pick up a yearbook to remember his face," Headen said.
Ricardo went to the University of the District of Columbia on a scholarship, the family said, and took a job as a maintenance worker at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, cutting grass and doing other chores in southern Montgomery County. Harry Gaston, an older cousin, brought Raashed aboard at a glass company in Georgetown where both Gaston and an older brother worked.
Raashed was smart, funny and universally known as "Sheedy." He was making about $20,000 a year and sometimes worked a second job at a nearby pharmacy. He and a friend were taking a year-long real-estate course to learn how to be brokers.
This spring, his girlfriend, Ashley, became pregnant, the family said. The excited couple moved into their first apartment, a small place in a rough-hewn building in the 5500 block of Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE, just around the corner from his old high school. They were busy doing things young couples do -- buying a TV, a bedroom set and a music system -- while talking about a wedding date.
Everything did not go smoothly.
One night in March, police spotted Raashed backing up a car with no lights on, traveling on the wrong side of a street in Southeast Washington. When officers stopped him, they said he got out of the car and started yelling at them. They found 11 grams of marijuana in the car.
Raashed was released pending trial on charges of reckless driving and possession of marijuana. It marked the first time that either brother faced a criminal charge.
Later, someone tried to steal his car, a white Ford Taurus, family members said. And there were problems with other young men around his new apartment.
"They started beefing on him, hating on him," Melody McKeython said. "He had a car, Ashley had a car, they had jobs -- two people doing what they were supposed to be doing, and a lot of people envy that. They wanted what he had."
On the evening of May 3, a Monday, he and his girlfriend drove her red Mercury Sable the few blocks from their apartment to George's Carryout, a popular place at Burroughs and Division avenues NE. According to police officials and the videotaped statement Raashed made to detectives, a group of as many as 10 teenagers started mocking the couple, particularly about Raashed's clothes.
"Sheedy has his own style -- he has some Gucci pants, and those things cost $200 or $300 each -- maybe he was wearing something like that," Melody McKeython said. "He and Ashley went up to the carryout, and those guys up there hadn't seen him with nobody, just his girlfriend. They figured he was a chump."
That was a mistake. Raashed, who spent a good part of each day unloading crates of mirrors, stands 6 feet tall and, while slender, is packed with solid muscle. A fight began, and police said that Raashed's girlfriend took a hammer from her car and attempted to join the fray. It was taken from her and used to smash her car windows.
The couple managed to get back in her damaged vehicle -- Raashed told police a shot was fired at them as they left -- and Raashed called Ricardo. He told him he needed a different kind of "hammer," slang for a gun, police said. Ricardo was able to find one, and within an hour, the brothers and their girlfriends were trolling the streets, hunting Raashed's tormentors, according to the statements they gave police.
They recognized several teenagers who had been at the carryout standing a few blocks away near the home of Darlene Taper, Chelsea's aunt, in the 800 block of 52nd Street NE, Raashed told police. One of them was Chelsea's teenage cousin, a girl who had witnessed but not taken part in the altercation, police said. The boys dropped off their girlfriends and returned, stopping in front of Taper's house, where the cousin and another teenager were on the porch.
Raashed told police that his brother lowered the driver's side window and that he leaned across Ricardo, pointed the gun and fired. He pulled the trigger at least five times. He did not hit the teenagers. But two bullets went through the bottom right corner of the plate glass window in the front of the house. One hit Chelsea's aunt in the shoulder. The other hit Chelsea in the back of the head, killing her.
The brothers did not immediately come forward. Ricardo got rid of the car they were driving that night and threw the gun into a wooded area in Maryland. Raashed remained silent, even as people in his neighborhood held a vigil and paid tribute to the slain girl. It took an anonymous tip to steer police to Raashed. Videotaped statements and the arrests soon followed.
The members of the Hall family are as bereft as anyone to explain how two much-loved young men with decent jobs, good families and no history of violence could possibly end up shooting a little girl in the head, even by accident.
They said Raashed had to be mightily provoked that night, because he was never known to start a fight. Beyond that, they are dazed.
"I don't know why such a detrimental decision was made," said Keela, a cousin who asked that her last name not be printed, citing the sensitivity of the case. "But the rock of our family has always been prayer, and that's what we're turning to now. For Chelsea's family. For ours."
Cheryl Hall, meanwhile, holds on to the image of the boys' touching hands in jail, a small tie of affection. Sitting in her living room, talking for more than an hour about her sons, she sees the image again in her mind, running it over all the other images of the boys on family trips, of Raashed clowning for the camera and Ricardo blowing out the candle on his third birthday cake, when their futures were a bright and shiny thing.
The images pass, and her eyes come back to focus on the empty family room.
She puts her elbows on her knees, her face in her hands and then she sobs. For the past, she says, which is lost except to memory; for the future, which is lost for Chelsea, for her boys, and for so many other children in her home town who have grown up to learn there is no way to be on the right end of a gun.