When 20-year-old Tomika Blackwell finally got into a fight she couldn't win, when the eight women armed with knives and baseball bats cornered her, she became a victim of the violent society in which she had sought youthful acceptance and approval.
She died after a scrap on the stairwell of one of the shabby apartment buildings along Atlantic Street in Southeast Washington that she called home in the last months of her life. She staggered into her apartment and sat down on the floor. She told her friends that this was her third time to be stabbed and that this time, she was going to die.
She did, a few minutes later. She had been cut across her face and forehead and down the back of her skull and stabbed twice through the neck. Her jugular vein was cut in two, and her right lung was punctured.
"She stopped breathing for a few seconds, then started back again, and then she stopped," says Arnold Rucker, her boyfriend, who was stabbed in the arm and hit in the head with a bat during the same melee.
Blackwell's death was a family tragedy and a somber window into the lives of a group of volatile young women for whom arrests are so common, and death so predictable, that the larger world took no notice of Blackwell's passing. The trial of those accused of killing her is entering its second week in D.C. Superior Court before Judge Russell F. Canan.
"Eight women get knives and baseball bats and go kill this girl, and nobody in the world says a thing about it," says Sharon Cooper, a family friend. "Not the police chief, not the mayor, not the president, not the papers. Nothing. What does that tell you about this society?"
Although violence was common to Blackwell and her circle of friends, the method of her slaying is a stark oddity in American society. From 1990 to 1997, only 65 of the nation's 179,230 homicides were classified by the Justice Department as "multiple females" using a knife to kill another female. That is .036 percent, a category so tiny it has not been computed for a more recent period, says Allen J. Beck, the Justice Department's chief statistician.
"People will want to look at this and say that more women are more violent these days, but that's not necessarily true," says Brenda V. Smith, a law professor at American University who specializes in issues relating to women in prison. "This just sounds like insanity, fueled by a lot of drugs and alcohol."
On Jan. 17, the day of her death, Tomika Lashawn Blackwell was no longer the smiling tomboy who charmed her suburban neighborhood in Temple Hills. In the last three years, she had been arrested four times in assaults on other girls, including one attack with a knife. She was 5-foot-4, weighed a solid 170, threw a wicked punch and drank so much beer that everybody called her "211," the name of her favorite malt liquor.
But it did not have to be that way, her friends say. Tomika Blackwell grew up in her grandmother's house on a nice street in a nice neighborhood, where the shrubs are manicured and the lawns neatly trimmed.
"Tomika was raised good, in a good home," says Helen Smith, her grandmother, respectfully known as "Miss H" to neighbors. "Her parents had problems and split up when she was 5. She came to live with me and my mother. We loved her as much as we could. We hugged her with every ounce of strength we had."
She was a pretty, spirited girl. She charmed neighbor Tremaine Minnis.
"She was lovable, lots of fun and just perfect," says Minnis, now 23 and the father of their 5-year-old daughter, Brianna. "She loved to dance, loved her some go-go music."
When she was 13 and 14, Blackwell was chafing under her grandmother's strict discipline. She would come home from school and help Smith cook dinner. Then she would help feed and bathe her great-grandmother, Helen Mae Willis, who doted on her. They were particularly close and would often talk until the older woman fell asleep.
It was only 10 p.m. on many of those nights. Blackwell would feign sleep, then sneak out to the home of an older girl who lived six houses down.
When she was 15, Blackwell fled her grandmother's home and moved in with her sister, Nicole, in the 300 block of Livingston Terrace SE. She dropped off Brianna with Minnis and his mother, seeing the child perhaps one weekend a month. She took to clubbing, dancing and drinking. She was 16, a 10th-grade dropout who couldn't hold a job for more than a couple of months.
She became friends with another group of young women, all of whom lived in small apartments on or near Atlantic Street. On the night she died, some of those friends came to kill her, prosecutors say.
The events of the late evening of Jan. 16 and the early morning of Jan. 17 are not entirely clear, but evidence and testimony being presented by prosecutor Lynn Holliday show that the evening began like many others. Blackwell, Sckeena H. Marbury, 19, and several other young women were playing cards in an apartment in the 100 block of Atlantic Street. Everybody was drinking. Some people were smoking marijuana or doing other drugs.
Sometime after midnight, Marbury started an argument with Blackwell, according to several witnesses. No one can remember what it was about; perhaps there was a rumor that one of Blackwell's cousins was involved with the boyfriend of Marbury's older sister, Lakeisha Wilson-Bey.
By all accounts, Marbury started the fight and Blackwell emphatically finished it. She whipped Marbury into the packed-dirt courtyard outside the apartment building.
Holliday charges that Marbury, who lived in the 5300 block of Call Place SE, went home and told a group of friends and her older sister about the beating. But she changed one key aspect: She said Blackwell and two other girls jumped her, rather than portraying it as a one-on-one fight, the prosecutor says.
That enraged Marbury's friends. No one in the room was a stranger to fighting, and this was cause for a serious brawl. Of the eight women in the room, at least five had previous arrests in assaults, several of those involving knives. Others had juvenile records that are sealed.
Wilson-Bey, 22, had three arrests on assault charges, as did Crystal T. Horsley, 24, according to court records. Lashawn R. Lewis, 27, had been arrested four times, three of them for allegedly assaulting a police officer. Naketia L. Loney, 21, had been arrested on charges of assault with a dangerous weapon, and Lashaundra K. Tabbs, 19, had an arrest on domestic assault charges. Court records show Marbury had been arrested at least once as a juvenile.
But only Lewis had been convicted, of assault in 1999. All of the other charges, including Blackwell's, were dropped almost immediately by prosecutors, court records show.
That night, prosecutors say, Wilson-Bey took the lead.
"I'm going to go kill that [expletive]," Wilson-Bey said, picking up a butcher knife, witnesses have testified. Others picked up a set of steak knives from Horsley's kitchen and grabbed two of her son's baseball bats.
Prosecutors say the group went in a van to the 100 block of Atlantic Street. They sprinted into the building, beating on each apartment door and screaming, "Where's 211?' "
Rucker, Blackwell's boyfriend, opened the door.
He was confronted with "a herd of women, armed with baseball bats and knives," in the words of prosecutor Holliday. He blocked them from coming inside, but Blackwell came up behind him and shouted a defiant, "Here I am!"
Rucker says one of the women reached over his shoulder with a knife, slicing Blackwell in the eye and across the forehead. Enraged, Blackwell shoved him aside and took on her attackers barehanded. When Rucker tried to intervene, he was stabbed in the arm and hit in the head with a bat.
Prosecutors say Wilson-Bey and Marbury made it from the narrow stairwell onto a small landing, which can accommodate only four or five people, to fight. Both are charged with first-degree murder and seven other felonies. They face life in prison if convicted.
Six other women, who say they watched from the stairs, were originally charged with first-degree murder, too. But they have pleaded guilty to lesser charges, such as conspiracy to commit aggravated assault. In exchange for their reduced charges, four women are testifying against Wilson-Bey and Marbury.
But much of the testimony is contradictory, and jurors may not be convinced that it is credible.
"This is going to be like 'Pulp Fiction,' " Russell J. Hairston, Marbury's attorney, told jurors in his opening statement. "You're going to hear five or six very different versions of what happened."
Whatever the actual events on the stairwell were, the violence did not end there.
The group of women allegedly ran from the apartment building and went in search of another woman who Marbury said had beaten her up. When Teresa Brown wouldn't come out of her apartment to fight, they trashed her car, doing more than $1,200 in damage, say the four women testifying for the prosecution.
Rucker recovered from the attack but was shot in a different altercation in July. He is now a paraplegic. Wilson-Bey's boyfriend, Donnell Chatman, was shot to death Aug. 2 in an incident that also is apparently unrelated to Blackwell's slaying.
And, finally, there was one more death. When Helen Smith told her mother that Blackwell had been slain, the elderly woman's health plummeted.
"She died in the hospital the day after Tomika's funeral," Smith says. "She kept reciting the 23rd Psalm and calling out Tomika's name."
The two were buried side by side on consecutive Saturdays in January.
Helen Mae Willis was 94 years old.
She outlived her great-grandchild by six days.