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Father accused of putting 6-year-old in harm’s way before she was killed

A funeral brochure memorializes Nyiah Courtney, a 6-year-old killed in a shooting last July in Southeast Washington. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)
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Nico Griffin’s defense attorney says he is a victim of D.C.’s gun violence, severely injured by the same drive-by shooter who wounded his fiancee and killed his 6-year-old daughter on July 16, 2021.

Federal prosecutors say Griffin was part of the problem, and partly responsible for his daughter’s death, because he was involved with the violent drug trade on the Southeast Washington street where the shooting occurred.

“I don’t understand what a child was doing at that location at 11 p.m.,” U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich said Wednesday before sentencing Griffin to 37 months in prison for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. “That’s a choice he made, to put his family in.”

But she said that she was “not punishing him more for” an “excruciatingly painful loss.” She gave Griffin a sentence at the top of federal guidelines, she said, based on the fact that he had 18 handgun bullets in his pocket at the time of his arrest.

Griffin spoke briefly and emotionally in federal court in Washington, apologizing to his fiancee and their surviving 11-year-old daughter. “I need a second chance,” he said.

The sentencing for Griffin came almost one year after the high-profile of killing of 6-year-old Nyiah Courtney in Congress Heights drew wide attention to the increasing homicides in D.C. last year. Her fatal shooting came amid a spate of gunfire across the District at the time, including a shooting outside a Nationals game and another along 14th Street NW near Logan Circle, prompting angry words from city leaders. A year later, city leaders are confronting a similar surge in gun violence. Last weekend, an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old were both shot and killed.

At funeral for 6-year-old Nyiah Courtney, a call for an end to the ‘bloody city’

Prosecutors had asked for the 37-month sentence in part because of Nyiah’s death. Federal authorities alleged that Griffin was part of the MLK Crew and that the gang was targeted in the drive-by shooting that killed his daughter. Another co-conspirator was shot at the same location on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue the day before Nyiah died.

“This was a violent drug trafficking organization” in “an open air drug market,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Henek said in court. “I would argue that her death was entirely preventable. ... At the very least, this is child endangerment.”

D.C. police and the FBI launched a joint investigation into the MLK Crew in January 2021; Griffin made three crack sales to undercover agents. Friedrich said she assumed the investigation “likely would have gone on longer” if not for the fatal shooting.

Defense attorney Clark U. Fleckinger II insisted that Griffin was unaware of the recent violence on the street, which was near where he and his fiancee, Dominique Courtney, had both grown up. The attorney emphasized that there was no evidence Griffin was personally involved in gang violence, describing him in a sentencing memorandum as a “very low level street worker” who used crack to deal with untreated depression.

Courtney had brought their two daughters to visit a friend nearby and was meeting Griffin to go home together when the shooting began, Fleckinger said.

“This is their neighborhood,” Fleckinger told the court. “He’s a victim of his environment.”

Henek countered in his own filing that Griffin, who appeared in music videos glamorizing guns, money and drugs, “was a leading contributor to the decline of his own community.”

In a letter to the court, Griffin’s cousin said Courtney is now trying to move to a safer neighborhood. She added that Griffin had lost two brothers to gun violence and his mother to a heroin overdose. His “entire life has been filled with trauma,” she wrote.

After Nyiah’s fatal shooting, D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III held up a photo of her at a news conference and said he was “heartbroken” by the violent loss of a young girl who braided her hair to match her grandmother and had been looking forward to starting first grade.

Police arrested 22-year-old Marktwan Hargraves of Maryland and charged him with second-degree murder while armed. He is being detained and has a court hearing Aug. 5 in D.C. Superior Court.

Fourteen children have been killed in homicides in the District since Nyiah’s death.

In a letter to the court, Griffin’s 11-year-old daughter, Nakyiah, wrote that she had not been able to see her father since her sister died; he was in jail when Nyiah was buried.

“I miss my father and my little sister,” she wrote. “I just Pray ... we can all go visit my sister at her gravesite.”