CHICAGO — A jury on Thursday found a second suspect guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of a 15-year-old high school honor student whose death in 2013 became a symbol of Chicago’s random gun violence.
The jury concluded Micheail Ward, who was 18 at the time, was guilty of firing the fatal shot that struck Hadiya Pendleton in the back. On Wednesday, a separate jury found the man accused of driving the getaway car, Kenneth Williams, guilty of first-degree murder as well. Ward and Williams also were convicted of aggravated battery for the wounding of two others.
As with the first jury, this one took little time to decide that Ward was guilty. During the trial, jurors watched a video in which Ward confessed to killing the teenager a little more than a week after she returned from Washington, where she performed as a majorette with her high school band at President Barack Obama’s inauguration festivities.
“There is justice for Hadiya,” her mother, Cleopatra Cowley, said through tears after the verdict was delivered. “She did not deserve what happened to her.”
Ward said he did not want to open fire at the park on the city’s South Side where Pendleton and friends were gathered after completing their final exams. But he said Williams told him if he did not do it Williams would kill him. Ward said he got out of the car he and Williams were in and walked over to a fence and opened fire on the group of young people whom he believed were members of a rival gang.
The case against Ward and Williams was further bolstered by grand jury testimony from two friends implicating them. During the trial, the friends backed off their grand jury and police statements, saying they did not remember. Prosecutors read their grand jury testimony into the trial record.
Ward’s mother, April Ward, claimed police coerced her son into a confession.
“I’m disappointed how they just harassed these kids into a confession,” she said. “They just sat there and manipulated him into saying what they wanted to hear.”
During closing arguments on Thursday, prosecutors highlighted statements Ward made both to fellow gang members and to detectives, pointing for example to Ward’s false statement that the teen was shot because a rival gang member had used her as a shield.
“You saw as he tried to justify killing a 15-year-old innocent girl,” said Assistant State’s Attorney James Papa, who told jurors there were no other gang members in the park at the time of the shooting.
Defense attorneys countered with the argument that the detectives focused solely on Ward and Williams because they were under intense pressure to solve a case that had become a major national news story.
“They blocked out everything else,” claimed one of Ward’s attorneys, Gina Piemonte, who said the fact that Ward in his confession got numerous facts wrong suggests detectives coerced him into admitting his guilt.
But the quick verdict suggests that the jury had little trouble discounting the contention by Ward’s attorneys.
The death of Pendleton came to symbolize random gun violence in Chicago because of the girl’s own history and because of her connection to the then-president of the United States and first lady. The park where the teen was killed was about a mile from the Obama’s Chicago home.
Though the teen was just one of more than 3,000 homicide victims in the city since 2013, and was killed before the number of homicides in Chicago increased dramatically, her killing stood out because of the reaction from the White House.
Obama spoke of the girl’s death during his 2013 State of the Union address. The killing prompted Michelle Obama to return to Chicago, first to attend the teen’s funeral and then later to tell an audience gathered not far from where she herself grew up, “Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her.”