Jeremiah A. Sweeney stood up to his full 6 feet 4 inches, raised the piece of paper he was holding to chest level, nodded toward the judge and read.
“Bear with me, your honor,” he said. “I’m pretty emotional right now. . . . I ask that you consider all the improprieties in the case. . . . I am not a killer, your honor, and a jury verdict cannot transform me into such a person.”
The police had bungled their investigation, Jeremiah argued last month in Prince George’s Circuit Court. The defense lawyer had botched his defense. And the judge had “erred” by failing to call a mistrial after a juror admitted going to the crime scene. Then Jeremiah, dressed in an oversize shirt emblazoned with “DOC” — Department of Corrections — filed a written notice of appeal, right there in front of witnesses.
It was as if he’d prepared for this moment, as if he’d seen it coming.
Three years ago — in September 2008 — Jeremiah sat in the same courthouse, seething as he listened to his best friend, Tron S. Johnson, being sentenced to 100 years for murdering three men at a Landover pizzeria earlier that year. He felt his anger rise when Johnson read his own letter to the judge explaining that he’d killed three men because he feared for his life. And after Johnson’s sentencing, Jeremiah lashed out at police, prosecutors and reporters who gathered outside the courtroom.
“All you want to do is lock people up and put it in the news,” he exploded.
Two of a kind, I thought. Both Jeremiah and Johnson, whose trial I’d covered, struck me as disenfranchised young men — smart, articulate and resourceful in a way that sometimes put them at odds with the law.
I gave Jeremiah my card.
“You’ll never write about me because I’m not newsworthy,” he responded. “You wouldn’t be interested in me unless I killed somebody or something.”
A few weeks after Johnson’s sentencing, Jeremiah called. He wanted his story told so that people would understand what can befall a poor, undereducated young black man.
“Even if they ain’t doing nothing, if you are a young black man, some people think you gotta be breaking the law,” he said. “That’s probably why a lot of them start doing things, because they can’t really get a fair chance to do anything else.”
Around that time, I asked Jeremiah what he wanted to do with his life. He said he didn’t really know. Maybe he’d work for a construction company, like his father. Or work with kids.
“Or maybe,” he said, “I’ll be a lawyer and help some of the young men out here who are always getting set up by the police.” It was a rare expression of optimism, one that made me wonder whether Jeremiah anticipated his story playing out like Johnson’s — or whether he saw some way of escaping the fate that he felt grew from his roots.
* * *
Jeremiah was born in Washington, D.C. His father, Moses Sweeney, now 70, worked in construction until he lost his leg in a motorcycle crash. Jeremiah is the 12th of Moses Sweeney’s 13 offspring.
“You must really love children,” I said during a telephone interview.
“I love the process that creates children,” Moses Sweeney responded, laughing.
Jeremiah, 25, is the middle child and only son of Henrietta Bradshaw, 52, who thinks that her tumultuous marriage to Moses Sweeney hurt her son.
“I was quite a bit younger than his father, and he kept on coming around. I didn’t want to yield to temptation,” she said. “Finally I gave in. I told the Lord I was going to give my son over to Him and confessed my sins for fornicating out of wedlock. That’s why I named him Jeremiah. It’s in the Bible.”
Jeremiah’s parents divorced when he was young, and he split his time between Bradshaw’s home in Southwest Washington and his father’s house on East Marshall Place in Landover.
Jeremiah described how he’d been on his own much of the time since he was 14, living mostly off the Social Security he receives because of his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He attended three elementary schools, then three alternative schools between middle school and high school graduation.
He also spent three days at a mental hospital after punching in a school wall in middle school. They “tried to say I was depressed and suicidal and crazy and stuff,” Jeremiah said. He was released when a doctor determined there was nothing wrong with him.
He started selling crack at 14 or 15, leading to his temporary placement in a residential treatment program. He graduated at 18 from Florence Bertell Academy in District Heights and then went looking for work, but no one would hire him.
Then, one night on the way to the liquor store, he and Johnson were nabbed carrying weed.
* * *
Jeremiah and Johnson had a special name for each other: Woe.
“We’d be like, ‘ ’S’up, Woe?’ ” Jeremiah said. “The other one would be like, ‘Nothing, Woe. ’S’up with you?’ ”
While Jeremiah struggled with his own demons, he and Johnson came to rely on each other. The two met as children living in the Kentland section of Landover, played on sports teams together and earned money cutting lawns.
“They looked out for each other,” said Brett Berry, 47, Johnson’s half brother.
In an interview from prison, Johnson, 26, said he and Jeremiah were close friends “out of the sandbox.” As they grew older and Jeremiah started having trouble with his peers, Johnson stepped up to help.
“If we had a small problem, I might be able to make him chill,” Johnson said.
When Jeremiah was shot at a few years ago over some neighborhood slight, some friends urged him to seek revenge, Berry said. Johnson intervened.
“He told Jeremiah that nothing but trouble would happen if he went after him,” Berry said.
But neither succeeded in staying out of trouble, and their partnership became one of navigating the legal system.
Johnson was charged in three drug cases before the 2008 shooting at Uno Chicago Grill during a Super Bowl party in Landover that ultimately put him away for life.
When Johnson got arrested for selling marijuana in 2007, Jeremiah took him to lawyer Stephen Gensemer, who had represented him and some of his relatives.
“He told me: ‘This is my friend Tron. I want you to take good care of him,’ ” Gensemer recalled.
After Gensemer was retained to defend Johnson in the triple-murder case, Jeremiah kept in touch.
“He’d call me and ask how Tron was doing, if he needed anything and if there was anything he could do to help him,” Gensemer said.
* * *
By his 25th birthday, which he spent in jail, Jeremiah had had 25 contacts with police, including, now, the murder for which he was convicted. He’d been locked up in Maryland, the District and Virginia.
Records show that he was arrested three times in six weeks for malicious destruction of property as a middle-schooler, for burglary at 13 and for stealing a car at 14. He drew his first gun charge a week before he turned 16. By the time he turned 18, he’d also been arrested on theft and drug charges. In April 2005, when he was 19, he was arrested for carrying a pistol and unregistered ammunition in the District. Along the way, he violated probation and had temporary restraining orders placed against him by his girlfriend, his father and one of his half sisters. He received a 10-year suspended sentence in a second-degree-assault case in 2008, records show.
Acquaintances describe Jeremiah as a loner who alternated between sadness and anger. During one conversation with me, he admitted he was high on PCP. And he sniped at me a few times.
“Every time I talk to you, the next few days the police will hassle me,” he said.
I carried messages back and forth between Jeremiah and a former state’s attorney who’d made it his mission to help young people stay out of trouble. Jeremiah would set a lunch appointment, then cancel it. I arranged for him to talk to a minister. He didn’t show up.
“They don’t care about me,” he said. “All of you are just looking for a way to make your middle-class consciences feel better.”
* * *
A year after Johnson’s arrest for murder and one year before Jeremiah, too, committed murder, Jeremiah called to say he was going to turn himself in for an outstanding domestic-violence warrant from 2008. He was on a mission to change his life, he said. No more running from the law.
He had been lying low in recent months. He’d checked himself into a 30-day rehab program to get help dealing with his PCP and marijuana use, he said. He started going to church and had plans to get baptized. He was planning to enroll in trade school. He had patched things up with his girlfriend. He wanted to get married and have kids.
“I want to have a good life,” Jeremiah said.
But first, there was the matter of the warrant that had been filed against him on the domestic-violence charge that his father had initiated. He owed the court some time, and he wanted to pay up so he could move on.
He had to run some errands before he surrendered, and he wanted to talk. A photographer and I spent time with him that day.
He took the Metro from D.C. to New Carrollton, then hopped a bus to Hyattsville, where he went to the bank, prepaid his auto insurance and turned his cellphone over to his mother.
Over a pizza lunch, which he barely touched, Jeremiah talked about previous stints in lockup, one at Upper Marlboro when Johnson was also jailed.
“I can deal with it,” he said. “I just want to get this over with so that I can get on with my life.”
* * *
On Friday, April 9, 2010, several young men were hanging out in the 2100 block of East Marshall Place: brothers Eric and Ervin McDonald; their next-door neighbor, David Walls; and friends Daren McDaniel and Robert Lee Anderson, known as “Whoodie.”
Jeremiah came by to do errands for his father. According to police and witnesses, about 4 p.m. Jeremiah walked down the street to retrieve some marijuana that was supposed to be stashed behind the McDonalds’ house. When he couldn’t find it, he confronted the young men, accusing Eric McDonald of taking it. Eric McDonald said he hadn’t.
About 8 p.m., Jeremiah returned, this time with a magazine from a handgun. There was more yelling. Just after midnight, Jeremiah came back for the third time, and he and Eric McDonald continued to argue.
“That’s when they actually saw the gun,” said Prince George’s police Detective William Watts. “They thought he was high on PCP, and they wanted him to go away.”
Jeremiah waved the gun, Eric McDonald said: “He was yelling: ‘Step to the gun line! Step to the gun line!’ ”
McDonald challenged Jeremiah to put the gun down and fight.
“He said, ‘I’m not gonna fight,’ ” McDonald recalled. “ ‘I got my gun!’ ”
Walls urged them to go inside. As they walked toward Walls’s house, a shot rang out, followed by five or six more.
Eric McDonald said a bullet whizzed by his ear. Anderson, 20, fell to the ground, a bullet wound to his head. He was taken to Prince George’s Hospital Center, where doctors determined that he was brain-dead.
After the shooting, witnesses told police, Jeremiah sped away in his older-model burgundy Cadillac. A short time later, he was spotted in D.C. acting erratically and was taken by ambulance to Howard University Hospital, where tests showed that he had PCP and marijuana in his system. He was kept long enough for his high to wear off, then released.
Police searched Moses Sweeney’s home and seized his handgun, which was ultimately determined not to have been the weapon used. That gun, a Ruger 9mm semiautomatic, has never been found.
Three days after the shooting, Jeremiah surrendered to police.
* * *
I always hoped that someday I would write a story about Jeremiah getting his life together, taking a different track from his best friend. I met with him a few times and talked to him dozens of times, taking notes as I tried to understand what was going on in his world.
When I heard about the shooting, I remembered how Jeremiah had told me that he was afraid that his old stomping grounds would be his undoing. That he had enemies there who held grudges.
He and Johnson had discussed moving away before Johnson went to prison. I asked Jeremiah why he didn’t move by himself. He had a responsibility to help his father, he said; his “roots” were in Landover.
Roots he ultimately couldn’t escape.