There were no answers yesterday in Courtroom 317. Not for the family of Wanda Alston. And not for the man who murdered her.
There was only punishment, a 24-year prison term for a man who cannot explain why he killed his neighbor, his "friend," a civil rights activist who was the mayor's liaison to gays and lesbians.
Alston, 45, was stabbed to death March 16 in her Northeast Washington home, attacked after she opened her door to William Martin Parrott Jr., who was bingeing on crack and apparently desperate for money to buy more.
In a fight for her life, Alston struggled, but she was stabbed again and again and eventually succumbed, left to die by her drug-addled neighbor, who took off with her car and her credit cards.
The slaying, in the 3800 block of East Capitol Street NE, was the talk of the city, from the streets of Alston's neighborhood to the cafes of Dupont Circle to the corridors of the Wilson Building downtown. About 1,000 people attended her memorial service.
Arrested the day after the killing, Parrott, 38, did not try to conceal what he had done, though the fog of his high had left his recollection incomplete, he told investigators. Parrott, out of work since losing his job at the D.C. medical examiner's office, had never been in trouble with the law. Barely a month after the slaying, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, admitting the killing but unable to explain it.
It was that plea that brought him before D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith E. Retchin yesterday to learn his fate and to face a courtroom full of people, his wife among them, devastated by what he had done.
Many of them, no doubt, would have had something to say. But it was left to those closest to Alston to speak yesterday in Superior Court. They were sad and angry.
"You killed my best friend, and as far as I'm concerned, it should be a life for a life," Veronica Wilson said. "Unfortunately, our judicial system does not allow that."
The proceedings brought many in the courtroom to tears.
"Wanda was a petite person, and I look at Mr. Parrott and I see that he is a huge man," Alston's oldest sister, Orelia LaVerne Lewis, said. "My sister did not have a chance in a fistfight, much less a knife. She did not have a chance to run to call for help, to do anything. She just had to take the stab wounds one at a time."
Across the aisle, in the first row, Alston's 83-year-old mother, Arabelle Alston, sobbed, white tissues pressed against her eyes.
On the bench, Retchin clenched her lower lip.
"The pain will never go away," Lewis continued. "It will never go away."
Retchin wiped a tear from her cheek.
It was nearly time for Parrott to speak, but first the court would hear from the attorneys. Though one urged leniency and the other did not, they were in many ways of like mind about Parrott.
Most of his life had been ordinary, uneventful. But over the last few years, Parrott had spiraled into depression, according to court papers filed by his attorney, Lexi Negin Christ. His diabetic father died after his legs were amputated. His marriage failed. He lost his job as a technician at the morgue. His diabetes began displaying troubling parallels to his father's condition.
Amid it all, he turned to drugs, according to the court papers: first marijuana and alcohol, later crack cocaine. All the while, he tried to hide his addiction and keep up his relationships with his mother, his children and the woman who would become his third wife.
But his addiction was deepening and, with his new wife, Parrott sought help, according to the court papers. He needed intensive inpatient treatment, he believed. But when he sought it, he was told that, unless he had been arrested or was otherwise entangled in the criminal justice system, he had few options for inpatient treatment, and those would entail paying as much a $180 a day.
He tried outpatient treatment, but he was not an ideal participant and he relapsed. Still, he knew he needed to kick his habit, so two or three weeks before he took a knife to Wanda Alston, he was once again asking to be placed in an inpatient program. But again he was told that his prospects for such a placement were slim.
And so it was that on March 16, Parrott was high and looking to get higher, off his insulin but on his pipe.
It was a new side of him that entered Alston's house that day, Assistant U.S Attorney John M. Cummings said. "It's as close to a Jekyll and Hyde situation as I can imagine there being," the prosecutor told Retchin. But Parrott cannot escape culpability, the prosecutor said.
And when his time finally came to speak, Parrott did not try to shift the blame.
"I take full responsibility for what happened," he said.
Alston, he told the court, was not just a neighbor: "She was a friend."
Parrott provided no answers, and the judge shook her head in frustration. "For those of us looking for some rational explanation," she said, "there really is none."
There was only punishment.
She gave him the maximum term under sentencing guidelines.