CHICAGO — When the suspects in the high-profile slaying of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton stepped up to the bench Thursday for what was supposed to be a routine arraignment, the judge announced an eye-popping figure that seemed anything but typical.
The alleged gunman, Michael Ward, faced 141 counts of first-degree murder — in a case with one fatality.
The number raised eyebrows in the courtroom and prompted Ward’s attorney to blast Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez for what he said was grandstanding in a case that has brought international attention — and the focus of the White House — to Chicago’s scourge of gun violence.
“I want to ask (Alvarez): ‘Why are you doing this?’” attorney Jeffrey Granich said to a throng of news media at the Leighton Criminal Court Building after Ward and co-defendant Kenneth Williams entered formal pleas of not guilty. “It’s ridiculous and stupid. It’s an extremely cheap way of getting attention.”
Alvarez’s spokeswoman, Sally Daly, responded Thursday night to the criticism, saying, “It’s simply not true at all.
“It is common for this office to bring all of the applicable charges at this juncture of the case, and that’s what was done here,” she said.
Daly would not elaborate on the specific counts against Ward, but legal experts and former prosecutors told the Chicago Tribune it’s typical to use the preliminary stage of indictment as a catch-all, especially when evidence is still coming in and a case remains fluid. The strategy is to capture as many theories about a crime as possible, then drop counts that don’t fit the evidence before trial, they said.
A number of recent cases — both high-profile investigations and those that flew under the media radar — seem to bear that out. When William Balfour was charged in 2008 in the sensational slayings of singer Jennifer Hudson’s mother, brother and nephew, a grand jury returned an indictment that included 53 counts of murder. He was eventually tried and convicted on 13 of those counts as well as other charges of home invasion and kidnapping.
In a lesser-known case, gang member Kenneth Hatcher was accused in 2011 of killing one teen and wounding three others at a South Side bus stop. He was charged in a 122-count indictment that included 96 counts of first-degree murder, court records show. He went to trial on just three murder counts.
Kelly Navarro, who spent 16 years as a Cook County prosecutor, said returning an indictment with dozens of counts is a move that most veteran criminal-defense attorneys understand and expect.
“You want to throw in everything you can conceivably think of,” said Navarro, who now is associate director of the Center for Advocacy at the John Marshall Law School. “Sometimes a count will look not so strong but at trial it becomes stronger. So you don’t want to rule things out.”
The number of murder charges can also skyrocket for those accused of firing a gun because numerous subsections in state law provide for enhanced penalties for discharging a firearm and causing a death.
Robert Loeb, a longtime criminal-defense lawyer and law professor at DePaul University, said he understood the number of charges is impacted by combinations of factors, but the 141 counts against Ward was one among the most he could recall.
“It’s very common that they charge a single murder in multiple ways, but 141 is very uncommon,” Loeb said.
Prosecutors have said Ward, 18, confessed to police that he and Williams, 20, were driving around on Jan. 29 looking for rival gang members to shoot when they passed Harsh Park and spotted Hadiya’s group, relaxing after final exams and taking shelter from the rain under a canopy. After Williams handed him a gun, Ward crept up on the group and fired six shots, prosecutors said.
Hadiya, a sophomore at King College Prep who had recently performed with her high school band at President Barack Obama’s inauguration festivities, was fatally shot in the back. Two other students were wounded, while 10 people who were part of the group escaped injury, prosecutors said.
After Thursday’s brief court hearing, Hadiya’s father, Nathaniel Pendleton, told reporters the arraignment marked the beginning of “a long road we gotta cross,” but he expressed confidence justice would be done on his daughter’s behalf.
“We’re just trying to make good things happen from something bad,” he said after noting that his wife and he are starting a foundation to encourage non-violence and combat gun violence.
Both Ward and Williams were charged in the indictment with first-degree murder, attempted murder, aggravated battery, aggravated discharge of a firearm and mob action. Ward, though, faces 124 more counts of murder than his co-defendant.
The counts multiply quickly because Ward, the alleged triggerman, was hit with additional charges of murder for shooting into a crowd. He was charged with murder for each person that was fired upon, regardless of whether they were struck. There were 12 other victims in the park that day, including the 10 victims who were shot at but not struck, according to prosecutors. For each of those victims, Ward was charged with variations of the murder statute because Hadiya was killed in the course of the “forcible felony” of firing the gun.
David Erickson, a former first assistant under ex-State’s Attorney Dick Devine and a retired appellate judge, said prosecutors would be loathe to bring so many counts to trial. Not only is it unwieldy but it also could confuse the jury. They also would drop counts they consider weak.
“You don’t want to go with counts that may not work with a jury,” he said. “And you don’t want counts that are inconsistent.”
Matthew McQuaid, Williams’ attorney, said he had not seen defendants hit with so many criminal counts in his some 20 years of practicing law, but he expects most of the counts to be dismissed before trial.
“Was it to make a splash? Who knows,” McQuaid said. “Maybe they’re being thorough and careful, but I’ve never seen these many charges in a murder case.”
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