LaKira Johnson, 21, breaks down after picking up the ashes of her cremated twin daughters from Alexander Pope Funeral Home in Washington this month. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

The twins were okay.

LaKira Johnson could hear a doctor confirm that as she slid a wand over LaKira’s bulging belly during an ultrasound. They were kicking. Their heartbeats were strong. LaKira imagined them in there playing, oblivious to the senseless shooting that had left her bleeding that night on the dirty tile floor of a carryout place.

She’d just wanted a sandwich. Five months pregnant and craving a cheesesteak, LaKira had walked from her home in Northeast Washington to Jerry Chan’s restaurant on an August night. Then she heard gunfire, felt her body jerk and knew a bullet had pierced her back and burrowed through her stomach. She doesn’t remember feeling pain, only fear.

“I don’t want to die,” the 21-year-old Walmart cashier thought again and again. And then, worrying about the two girls she was carrying, “I don’t want them to die.”

Now she lay in the hospital feeling relieved as doctors assured her that the bullet missed her uterus. She would lose her kidney and part of her intestines, but the twins would be okay.

Then three days into her hospital stay, LaKira went to the bathroom, saw blood and knew that was no longer true.

Gun violence is such a constant in the District that it is not measured in bullets fired but in lives claimed. Normally that is a clear-cut number.

But what happened to LaKira’s pregnancy raises a complicated set of legal and moral questions about what constitutes a life when taken by a stranger. Does it begin when a newborn can survive on its own? Does it start with a first breath? Does it matter that the twins were already loved?

LaKira knew it was too early for her daughters to be born, but there was no stopping what had already started. With her boyfriend and mother by her side, and a medical staff instructing her, she pushed once, and the girls came out together, wiggling in the amniotic sac they had shared their entire existence.

She had already decided to name them Heaven and Nevaeh (Heaven spelled backward), even before she had to trust that’s where they were going.

LaKira is not sure how long they survived, but she held them for hours. She held them as they breathed and after they stopped breathing. She held them naked and dressed in little white gowns and matching hats that the hospital provided. She held them as her mother took pictures of them with her cellphone, capturing images LaKira would later scroll through many nights, sobbing.

LaKira has a keepsake box for her twins at the house she shares with her mother. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

A pair of angels sit on a table at the Johnson home in Northeast D.C. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

“I love you, and I will miss you,” she told them both.

Finally, after about 12 hours, she was told it was time to let them go. Detectives had arrived to take their tiny bodies to the medical examiner’s office, which would have to address a crucial question: Were their deaths the result of homicide?

‘I’ve been shot!’

LaKira had almost asked her 7-year-old daughter, Raniyah, to walk with her to the carryout place Aug. 30. It was only a few blocks away, nestled between a Papa John’s and a lot with a barbed-wire fence. Then she looked at the time and realized it was after 9:30 p.m.

She told Raniyah to get ready for bed since she had school in the morning.

LaKira was never an eager student, dropping out in 11th grade. But she is proud that the second-grader loves school. She is so eager to practice writing that she will pen a poem for a stranger.

LaKira was 13 when she learned she was pregnant with Raniyah and 18 when she gave birth to her second daughter, Kali. When she found out she was having twins, she was scared — and then excited. So were her daughters. Already, Kali had started putting aside toys and declaring them “for my baby sisters.”

LaKira said she knew what the autopsy would find: There was nothing wrong with the twins. She had seen them. Each fit in her hand, and neither weighed more than a pound, but, otherwise, they were perfect.

“It wasn’t the babies’ fault,” LaKira said. “It was me and my body. It was going through so much trauma.”

Because the bullet never touched the twins and because they were too young to survive outside her womb, LaKira knew her case presented a unique legal question. Not only would the medical examiner’s office have to make a determination, so, too, would police and prosecutors if someone were arrested.

The District does not have a fetal homicide law, and the twins, at 22 weeks gestational age, were not at a stage normally considered viable. A majority of states set limits on abortion at 24 weeks and later, generally considered the beginning of viability for newborns to survive outside the womb. The District, along with seven states, does not have a law prohibiting abortion after a specific point in pregnancy.

But this loss was not her choice, LaKira said, making it different from an abortion. “My babies were murdered,” she said.

Police describe her as an innocent bystander caught in a series of retaliatory shootings. A day before she was shot, a 24-year-old man from Southeast was killed just before midnight a few blocks from the carryout place. And four days after that, a 28-year-old man was found shot to death between two vehicles in the area.

Surveillance video from the night of Johnson’s shooting shows a man opening fire indiscriminately into a crowd. People can be seen scattering. Two figures tumble to the ground.

D.C. police released surveillance video of the Aug. 30 shooting of LaKira Johnson in Northeast Washington. Johnson, who was not targeted by the gunman, survived the shooting but lost her twin babies. (D.C. Police Dept.)

One was a man police have not identified but who was taken to the hospital in critical condition.

The other was LaKira, who ran back into the restaurant she had just left and called her sister.

“I’ve been shot!” she shouted into the phone.

Her sister Ebony Johnson and their mother, Cassandra Johnson, rushed to their car. When a light on the corner turned red, Cassandra, a 42-year-old school bus attendant for children with special needs, jumped out and started running. She later recalled passing the other victim. He lay on the ground as a woman stood over him screaming, “No! No! No!”

When they reached LaKira, there was so much blood that her sister couldn’t believe she had been shot only once.

They waited together for the ambulance, and when it finally swept LaKira away, her mother went with her. She remained by her side almost every day for the three weeks she was in the hospital. She was there, almost brought to her knees, when doctors told her that her daughter now had one kidney. She was there Sept. 3 when her grandchildren came into the world and left it on the same day. And she was there when her daughter, on the afternoon she was discharged, decided she couldn’t tell Raniyah and Kali they weren’t going to be big sisters.

LaKira’s daughter, Kali, 3, cuddles up to a doll. She had been putting aside toys for her new baby sisters. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

LaKira looks at photographs of her twin daughters on her phone as she lies on an air mattress. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Cassandra had been her daughter’s voice for weeks, speaking for her to doctors, detectives and the media. And so she agreed to be it once more.

“When I said ‘Your sisters are up in heaven; they died,’ [Kali’s] little heart was really broken,” she said. “They were both so heartbroken.”

The tiniest victims

It was 4 a.m., and Cassandra couldn’t find her daughter anywhere downstairs. She wasn’t on the air mattress that had turned the living room into a makeshift bedroom. She wasn’t in the kitchen.

Then she looked in the darkened front room. There, she found LaKira sleeping on a teal-colored couch, with two tiny white gowns draped over her shoulder.

Cassandra had watched her daughter grow physically stronger daily. The hospital sent her home with a walker, and within weeks, with the help of a physical therapist, she was slowly making her way unaided up and down the block.

But emotionally, her healing had been harder to gauge.

After the shooting, her family noticed her reading the Bible more and distancing herself from her living daughters as she mourned her lost ones. Some nights, she stayed up late crying and then napped when Raniyah and Kali came home from school.

The white gowns were normally in a mint green box with the few other mementos she had of the twins: two hats, two birth certificates and two white knit blankets, one distinguishable from the other by a small stain Heaven left when she defecated. On difficult days, LaKira held that smudge up to her face and found comfort in breathing in that remaining biological piece of her babies — proof that they had lived.

“I don’t think it ever will get easier,” she said.

LaKira had decided she didn’t want to bury them. She wanted something — even if it was only their ashes — to hold.

Some days, Cassandra felt she’d lost three family members to the shooting. But maybe once the twins were cremated, her daughter could start to heal, she said. Maybe then, she could look at a newborn without breaking down.

Already, more than a month and a half had passed since their deaths, and the family, to their frustration, was no closer to retrieving their bodies.

They couldn’t afford to cremate them on their own, and the financial help they were entitled to as crime victims had not come through. The D.C. Crime Victims Compensation Program, run by the Superior Court, provides up to $6,000 for funeral and burial costs for homicide victims — but for the family to qualify, the twins’ deaths had to be declared homicides.

Interim D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham comforts LaKira as her mother, Cassandra Johnson, and her daughter Kali hover beside her air mattress in October. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Cassandra added that concern to the list of questions she planned to ask interim D.C. police chief Peter Newsham when he visited. He had gone to the hospital to check on her daughter and had promised to come by the house.

On the day he was expected, she decided to make a lasagna dinner in his honor. For hours, she stood in the kitchen cooking as her daughter lay down in the next room, sinking slightly into the air mattress she had patched the day before with a piece of bubble gum.

She remained there, curled on her side, for much of the afternoon. She lay there when the girls came home from school and when two detectives showed up at the house.

She lay there still when Newsham arrived.

She had been swiping through the twins’ photos and crying quietly when he walked in and sat beside her. He placed a hand on her knee and then her shoulder.

“You okay?” he asked.

“We’re doing okay,” she said.

Newsham stayed for about 10 minutes. He didn’t have time for the lasagna. He was on a panel with other city officials that night to discuss violent crime in the District. But before he left, he assured LaKira he would do what he could to help move along the money for the cremation. He also expressed outrage at what had happened to her.

“The fact that she lost two of her babies is obviously tragic, and it shouldn’t have happened,” he said, “not in this city, not in the District of Columbia.”

What he didn’t tell her was that the city had recorded 121 homicides this year and that the police department would be adding two more to that number. Heaven and Nevaeh’s deaths would be counted as homicides, making them the youngest victims of gun violence in the city this year and possibly ever.

If the police make an arrest in the shooting, Newsham said, the person will be charged with the twins’ deaths. But prosecutors would decide whether to pursue those charges.

Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said his office does not comment on pending investigations or charging decisions.

So far, no one has been arrested.

‘They’re with me now’

Family members and friends gather Nov. 6 in Northeast Washington for a prayer and balloon release in remembrance of LaKira's twin daughters. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Five days after Newsham’s visit, LaKira sat next to her mother in a funeral home, looking at pictures of infant urns.

One resembled a teddy bear.

Another, baby bootees.

A third was in the shape of a stack of toy blocks.

“How are you doing?” mortician Rhonda McIntyre asked.

“She’s coming around,” Cassandra answered for her. “We just have to get through this and then the rest of her life.”

The medical examiner’s office had finally made a ruling: The cause of death was “prematurity complicating maternal gunshot wound” and the manner of death “homicide.”

The money from the crime victims program had come through, and the family could now pay for a memorial service and a funeral if they chose. But LaKira had another plan — one that would feel more like a celebration of her daughters’ brief lives.

They were due Jan. 7. But on Nov. 4, she walked back into the funeral home and was handed a cardboard box. In it was the urn she had picked out — a wooden base with three alphabet blocks on top. One featured the letter H. Another, the letter N.

For the first time since she gave birth to them, LaKira held her daughters.

“That’s all I wanted,” she said. “They’re with me now.”

Two days later, the urn sat in the center of a white foldout table in the family’s living room, along with the mint green box and three enlarged photos of the twins. The air mattress was now gone, and the room was filled with people and laughter and the smell of comfort food cooking.

This was how LaKira wanted to say goodbye.

At dusk, she walked outside with more than two dozen friends and relatives and passed out 22 pink balloons and 22 purples balloons — one for each week she was given with each girl. As her great uncle prayed aloud, speaking about good coming from evil, everyone stood on the sidewalk, hand in hand.

“Amen!” they shouted in unison. And then, all at once, they released the balloons, making the night sky, for at least a moment, a little brighter.

Pink and purple balloons float into the night sky after they are released in the twins’ memory. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Peter Hermann contributed to this report.