The two brothers charged with the killing of an 8-year-old girl as she watched television in her aunt's Northeast Washington home pleaded guilty yesterday, telling the court they were sorry for gunning down the girl, who wasn't even their intended target.
Family and friends of Chelsea Cromartie muffled sobs and dabbed their eyes with tissues as the case against Raashed and Ricardo Hall was laid out by Assistant U.S. Attorney Albert A. Herring.
Hearing the account of the harrowing events of May 3 was apparently too much for Chelsea's mother, Takisha, who left the courtroom in tears before Herring was finished.
Charged with first-degree murder, the defendants pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. When D.C. Superior Court Judge Ann O'Regan Keary turned to the brothers to ask whether the evidence that the prosecutor had outlined was correct, each spoke in a faint voice. "Yes, and I'm deeply sorry," Ricardo Hall, 23, told the judge. "Yes, and I'm also sorry," Raashed Hall, 22, told Keary when she turned to him.
It was an emotional but not unexpected culmination to a case that, even among the many child deaths in the District this year, touched the hearts of the city, imprinting the little girl's smiling face in the minds of many.
As he left D.C. Superior Court yesterday, Chelsea's father, Daniel, said the brothers had done the right thing in admitting their guilt and expressing sorrow. But he said none of that really matters to Chelsea's family.
"That was good that they took responsibility," he said, "but regardless of what they said, it's not going to bring my baby back."
In the first days after the shooting, the slow progress of the investigation and the lack of good leads from the neighborhood heightened the frustration of investigators and the outrage of the community. The anger came to a head at Chelsea's funeral, when speaker after speaker demanded that citizens step up with information about the case. Within days, the Hall brothers were in custody, each making incriminating statements, according to charging documents.
Chelsea was the unintended victim of a bullet that crashed through a window about 9 p.m. and struck her in the head as she watched television in the living room of her aunt's home in the 800 block of 52nd Street NE.
Initially, police led the public to believe that the bullet was a shot gone astray. But court papers in the case later revealed that although Chelsea was not the target, the shooting was not random and was in fact a revenge attack gone awry.
Once the brothers were in custody, it quickly became clear that they were not the hardened street toughs that many people assumed were behind the deadly shooting. Both men were high school graduates with steady jobs. Neither had ever been arrested for a violent crime. And almost immediately after they were arrested, their father went to the Cromartie home, he said, to express his condolences to the girl's family.
The shooting stemmed from a dispute earlier in the evening outside a carryout restaurant a few blocks away on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE. The argument, which pitted Raashed Hall and his girlfriend against a larger group, ended with the couple fleeing and someone shooting at them.
An angry Raashed called his brother and asked him to find a gun and bring it to him, according to prosecutors. The two then went looking for members of the group.
They found two of them a few blocks away on the porch of Chelsea's aunt, according to police and prosecutors. One, a teenage cousin of Chelsea's, had been a witness to the earlier altercation, according to prosecutors. The other, a teenage friend of the cousin's, also had been there. The brothers circled the block several times, and Raashed Hall eventually opened fire, according to prosecutors. Neither of the youths on the porch was hit, but inside, Chelsea and her aunt were. Chelsea died. Her aunt survived.
A plea appeared likely soon after the arrests, but both retained new lawyers, initially slowing talks with the principal prosecutor in the case, Charles W. Cobb.
By yesterday, the defendants had reached an agreement. Each faces five to 40 years in prison on the second-degree murder charge. Raashed Hall, who also pleaded guilty to assault with a dangerous weapon, faces up to 10 years on that charge and will be sentenced Nov. 12. His brother will be sentenced Nov. 19.
Billy L. Ponds, who represented Raashed Hall, said afterward that both brothers are remorseful and that they pleaded guilty early to spare everyone, especially Chelsea's family, the ordeal of a trial.
It was what their father, Ricardo McKeython, wanted them to do, he said afterward. He had watched from the back row as his sons pleaded guilty. As they were led away, he waved to them, content that they had finally had a chance to speak, if only for a moment, to the family of Chelsea.
"They wanted to get off their chest that they were sorry," McKeython said.