James Anthony Smith was excited about the new pair of red-and-white Nike Air Jordans he got as an early Christmas gift from his mother last year. They were the same kind she had bought for his older brother.
Just four days after the 17-year-old received his new $250 sneakers, D.C. prosecutors say a teen wearing a hooded sweatshirt approached James on a basketball court at the Frederick Douglass Community Center in Southeast Washington. They said the youth pointed a gun at James and said, “Give me those shoes.”
The two fought briefly that Dec. 18 evening and James took off running. Seconds later, two of James’s friends would later tell authorities that they heard gunshots. They found James in the street, about a half block away. He had been shot twice in the back. His new sneakers were gone, his feet in only socks.
“It hurt,” James whispered to one of the friends, who knelt beside him and held him as he lay dying, a prosecutor said.
During a trial that began this week in D.C. Superior Court, prosecutors said the gunman was a 16-year-old Southeast Washington teen who knew James from the neighborhood.
But defense attorneys with the D.C. Public Defender Service argued that D.C. police arrested the wrong person. They said witnesses who implicated their client may have had an alternate motive and there is no DNA evidence tying their client to the case. They also accused D.C. police of not thoroughly investigating the case.
Federal prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office declined to charge the youth as an adult, leaving prosecutors in the District’s Office of the Attorney General, which handles juvenile cases, to prosecute the teen.
The Washington Post was permitted to cover the trial in Judge Robert Okun’s courtroom on the condition that the identity of the youth is not made public. In juvenile proceedings, a judge decides the case, not a jury.
Prosecutors are basing much of their case on the testimony of the witnesses who said they were with James the night of the shooting. Authorities arrested the 16-year-old in the spring after the pair identified the defendant.
“These shoes are important,” D.C. prosecutor Ella Gladman told Okun during her opening statements as she recounted details of the shooting from her witnesses. “These shoes are the reason James was killed.”
Prosecutors said the teen witnesses saw James fight with the person who demanded his shoes then lost sight as James fled. They did not see the shooting, but arrived soon after, prosecutors said.
“The witnesses saw the defendant after the shooting running away, holding the red sneakers in his hands,” Gladman said.
But the teen’s public defenders argued that the witnesses were not credible. According to the defense, the two witnesses did not come forward until months after the killing, after one of their relatives contacted authorities.
That relative, defense attorneys said, is a D.C. prison inmate and has a 10-year sentence. They contend that he offered up his teenage family members as witnesses after he discussed with prosecutors the possibility of getting his prison sentence reduced and securing the $25,000 D.C. reward money for his family.
Defense attorney Joseph Yarbough raised questions about the credibility of the account provided by the teens. The youths said they were with James and held James after he was shot, but Yarbough said neither of them called police that evening.
A D.C. police officer who responded to a 911 call testified that officers got an anonymous call about “a man down.” The officer told the judge Thursday that when he arrived at the scene, James was lying in the street alone. The officer also said he did not realize James had been shot until he got close to him.
Yarbough told Okun that one of the teens who came forward as a witness had two robbery charges, including an armed robbery charge.
“What happened to James Anthony Smith was a tragedy and nothing can undo that tragedy,” Yarbough said in his opening statement. “But we need to make sure we don’t add another tragedy by locking up an innocent youth for a crime he did not commit.”
Defense attorneys also said their client’s DNA was not found on any of the shell casings left at the scene.
DNA found under James’s fingernails did not match that of the defendant, but authorities determined it belonged to an “unknown” person, Yarbough told the judge.
Police believe that they did locate the .22-caliber semiautomatic that authorities say was used to kill James. Weeks after the shooting, police were called to a Southeast Washington apartment, where they were investigating an armed carjacking. The gun, authorities say, was found in the apartment.
Defense attorneys said the apartment had no connection to their client. The two men in the apartment were arrested for the carjacking, but were not charged in James’s slaying.
One of the first witnesses to testify in the trial Thursday was James’s mother, Benita Smith. Under questioning from prosecutors, Smith described her youngest son, who was a sophomore at Ballou High School, as a “a mild-mannered child” who loved to shoot hoops, play video games and listen to music.
Smith said she saw her son about an hour before he was killed. Around 4:30 that afternoon, Smith said James came to her workplace to say hello and gave her a kiss. He told her he was going to play basketball for a while.
The defendant sat next to his attorneys in court. His parents sat behind him in the audience. At the end of the first day of testimony, before the teen was led away, his mother mouthed “I love you.” He looked back, smiled slightly and mouthed “I love you, too.”
Neither side has so far presented any evidence that the sneakers were ever found.
The trial is expected to continue Monday.