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Resumption of jury trials in D.C. Superior Court remains uncertain as victims, families long for justice

Retired D.C. police officer Que Wallace’s daughter, 17-year-old Jamahri Sydnor, was fatally struck by a stray bullet three years ago. The jury trial for her case is one of hundreds that have been postponed because of the pandemic. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)

Family members of Jamahri Sydnor, the 17-year-old college-bound student who was killed in 2017 when she was struck by a stray bullet in Northeast Washington, are growing weary of the wait for justice.

After years of court hearings, the men charged with murder in Jamahri’s killing were supposed to go to trial in spring. Prosecutors say the teen happened to be driving near her home as members of rival neighborhood crews fired at one another from across the street.

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But when the coronavirus crisis largely closed down operations at D.C. Superior Court, the trial was postponed. It is not clear when it may be held.

Que Wallace, Jamahri’s mother, retired last year as a D.C. homicide detective and knew that even without a pandemic, the court process would be long and difficult. But now she and her family, who had steeled themselves to come to court and listen to even the most painful details of the case, are faced with uncertainty.

“I just plan on trying to mask what I feel when I come to the reality of it and prepare myself to do what I have been doing my whole career, which is testifying in court and trusting and believing that justice is fair,” Wallace said. “But we just have to wait.”

In the District and around the country, the pandemic halted jury trials. Restarting them has been a slow process as courts consider how jurors, witnesses and others can come together safely. Earlier this month, Maryland began sending out jury duty summonses as courts there begin resuming such trials with myriad precautions.

But in the District, victims and their families will continue to wait for justice, most likely into 2021. And people charged with crimes, some who have been in jail for years, also must wait to hear a jury declare their innocence or guilt.

Since March, more than 450 jury trials scheduled in D.C. Superior Court have been delayed, of which 146 involve cases where defendants are held in D.C. jail awaiting trial. Those cases will get priority scheduling when trials resume, a court spokeswoman said.

Court officials declined to specify when the trials will resume, but there are indications none will be held for the remainder of the year. The court mails out juror summonses about a month before a trial is to begin. As of Thursday, no summonses had been mailed.

Also, the court follows mandates from D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who extended through the end of the year an order that restricts businesses from fully opening because of the pandemic.

“The health crisis is driving when the court can realistically reopen to the public at large and at what level the court can open,” said Anita Josey-Herring, the court’s newly installed chief judge. “We certainly do not want to put members of the public at risk of contracting the virus, including people who would be involved in a trial: for example, court staff, jurors, prosecutors and other attorneys.”

When jury trials resume, those that were postponed because of the coronavirus crisis will be rescheduled first, Josey-Herring said.

But the challenge then will become finding available dates for prosecutors and attorneys who will have to weave their 2020 trial calendars into 2021. Before the pandemic, most homicide cases in the court went to trial within a year or two. Now it could take as many as three or four years for many to come before a jury.

The court has been holding virtual hearings and bench trials via the Internet in which a judge, but not a jury, weighs the evidence and delivers a verdict.

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Judge Juliet McKenna, one of the criminal division’s presiding judges, said the courthouse has also begun retrofitting some courtrooms and jury lounges, adding plexiglass partitions in the jury box, around the judge’s bench and at the tables where the defendant and defense attorneys and prosecutors sit. The court also plans to hire an epidemiologist and environmental hygienist to advise them on safe juror practices.

Meanwhile, families of victims try to cope with the continued anxiety of preparing and waiting. “I was kind of prepared, but I don’t think my family was,” Wallace said.

In Jamahri’s case, detectives arrested Robert Moses, 21, and James Mayfield, 20. Both men were charged with first-degree murder while armed and have pleaded not guilty. They were set to go to trial on May 11.

A third man, Philip Carlos McDaniel, 23, was charged with assault with intent to kill. McDaniel told authorities he did not fire a gun but drove his two friends to the area where the shooting took place.

Kevin McCants, Moses’s attorney, said his client was “extremely frustrated” with sitting in the D.C. jail for three years, awaiting the day he can defend himself.

Mayfield’s attorney Veronice Holt said the case was going through the court system during “very difficult times.” McDaniel’s attorney did not return calls requesting a comment.

The day of the shooting, Jamahri was driving the white Nissan sedan she purchased for herself after working part time at Beefsteak restaurant in D.C., her mother said. The teen was preparing for her older sister’s wedding in Annapolis the next day where she and a friend were to sing the Beyoncé and Stevie Wonder cover of “So Amazing.”

Jamahri picked up a 12-year-old relative from a barber shop and was driving home around 3:30 p.m. when a bullet from a .45 caliber handgun cut through the front passenger window and struck her head. Police determined Jamahri was unintentionally caught in gunfire between rival neighborhood gang members standing on opposite sides of a street.

Jamahri was 10 days from beginning her freshman year at Florida A&M University. She had not declared a major but was interested in journalism, Wallace said. Her daughter had a passion for stories involving people with disabilities. Jamahri was fluent in sign language and often visited Gallaudet University, where she interacted with students, Wallace said.

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As a longtime detective, Wallace spent decades consoling grieving families while she investigated their loved ones’ cases.

This time, however, the grieving family was hers and the court hearings she attended were in her daughter’s case. “I’m still struggling with the reality of it. I cope with this by remaining in a state of denial to some degree. I can’t bring myself to think about it. It’s too hurtful, too hard,” she said referring to the loss of her daughter whom she nicknamed “Jammi” as a child.

“I know I need to go into counseling. And I will — at some point,” she said.

Jamahri’s father, Jerome Sydnor, a Metro bus driver, also has attended nearly all of the court hearings. “I know my kid would stand up for me. I have to be at the trial whenever it is. I want to let these guys know that Jamahri had a father. She had a dad. I want them to know,” he said.

More delays mean more time for painful thoughts and second guessing. “I’m struggling hard,” Sydnor said. “I wish I was in a position to help my kid, man. Or be in the position to take that bullet instead of her. She had so much life in front of her.”

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Today, Jamahri’s bedroom remains unchanged from the day she left the house. Until recent weeks, Wallace said, no one ventured into her daughter’s room, where the walls are painted pink and about a half-dozen teddy bears rest on her bed. Stacked across the floor were several waist-high boxes of Jamahri’s belongings packed for college.

On the opposite side of the room, a small desk lamp casts a pink haze across the walls. The lamp, Wallace said, has been on continuously since Jamahri forgot to turn it off the day she left the house for her errands. Family and friends see the light shine from underneath Jamahri’s bedroom door and from the window outside. Wallace said she has no plans to turn the lamp off. Instead, she will wait for the bulb to burn out.

“I don’t know what it’s a sign of, but her light is still shining, three years later,” she said. “That’s Jammi. She’s not going to let anyone put out her light.”

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