I sat, riveted, in a seventh-floor courtroom at the George Leighton Criminal Courthouse on the South Side of Chicago, a few rows behind two men serving life sentences for murder.
Psychologists, juvenile development experts and staff at the Illinois Department of Corrections walked to and from the witness stand. They spoke of brain development, the context of the environment the two men had grown up in, the consequences of having absent parents and effects from the leadership of older men. They spoke of how one was 12 years old when he joined a neighborhood gang.
The other was 10.
Minutes before, I had been making conversation with potential members of a jury pool, waiting to see if I would be called for a case at the Circuit Court of Cook County at 26th Street and California Avenue.
Only a few dozen of us were that day, and after receiving my $25 check for fulfilling my civic obligation, I wandered. What I had wandered into in that seventh-floor courtroom was a new sentencing hearing for two men who had been found guilty of a double homicide in 1997.
The murders were horrible. A 21-year-old man, Joshua Thomas, and a 24-year-old woman, Salada Smith, had been shot to death at a gas station in West Garfield Park on Chicago’s West Side. The two had no known gang affiliations. Salada Smith was six months pregnant.
The two defendants I saw in court that day, Javell Ivory and Darnell Foxx, were 17 and 15 at the time, respectively. Barely seeing their parents as kids, Ivory and Foxx, who were cousins, had both joined a gang before they were teenagers. On the day of the murder, three older men in the gang suggested they pile into a van and roll up on what they thought were a group of rival gang members.
So they pulled up to the gas station, and two men started shooting. One of them was Foxx. Ivory was thought to have been in the back seat, armed with a gun that he didn’t discharge.
When both were convicted of the double homicide, they both received mandatory life sentences without parole, which was the law at the time. Mitigating circumstances, like the influence of the older men, their poverty and their unstable home environment could not be considered as part of their original sentencing.
But five years ago, in Miller v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional. Two years later, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that it applied retroactively, to all the juveniles sentenced in Illinois to life in prison, and new sentencing hearings were ordered for all inmates sentenced to life as juveniles. Ivory and Foxx were among the first in the state to receive new sentencing hearings.
Toward the end of the hearing, both men stood up to address the victims’ families. Both apologized. Ivory sobbed.
The families cried, too. Smith’s mother, Obrellia Smith, had looked the men in the eyes earlier in the day and told them she forgave them.
I sat with tears brimming in my eyes, too. So many broken families. I couldn’t help but think about how, if these two men had been born in Barrington and been surrounded with families and friends who loved and nurtured them, where the school district is so well-resourced it’s insisting on personal iPads for each elementary school student, would they have slid into a gang? Would they have been in that van on June 22, 1997, with nothing to do but an evil act whose consequences they had not fully thought through? Maybe. But most likely not.
I later wrote up the newsy side of what I had seen for the Chicago Tribune, and the two men’s sentences were reduced in a way in which they would get a chance to act on their promises of redemption to the victims’ families. But the story sticks with me, still.
I wondered, too, why no journalists had been in the courtroom that day. I had found out about the hearing only by happenstance. Did the lack of interest have to do, I wondered, with the color of the defendants and the color of the victims? (Everyone involved was black.) The geography in which the tragedy happened? (The West Side, whose Austin neighborhood currently far outstrips the murder rate of any other Chicago community.)
Yet, as Chicagoans, even if we’re suburbanites, these are our neighborhoods, too. We cannot say we care about what happens to children in Syria and not care about what happens to children in Chicago.
As you may have heard, 2016 was the most violent year in Chicago since the 1990s, when in some years, murders climbed to more than 900 annually. The murder rate in Chicago had started declining, for the most part, in the mid-2000s. In 2014, there were 432 homicides, according to the Chicago Police Department. A year later, that number rose to 492. But last year, in 2016, murders spiked significantly from the years before, to 762. Seven hundred and sixty-two lives, extinguished.
Experts have been puzzled, and the theories behind the reason for the spike are multiple: the loss of the middle class population from certain neighborhoods, especially in communities of color; the gutting of mentoring and violence-prevention programs; and the fracturing of gangs. Chicago’s violence, in several instances, has been driven by petty slights and even by insults on social media posts.
Willow Creek has a group of staff and volunteers across all regional campuses that has been diving deep into the systemic issues behind Chicago’s violence and into what community and faith-based organizations are already doing to embrace gaps in education and jobs. Several Creekers also have relationships with gun violence-prevention programs, like the Newtown Foundation, and have worked with the church’s local compassion and justice outreach to hold learning communities and forums on gun violence.
What’s clear is more community policing could be part of the answer but is not the holistic answer. Raising a child, as we know, takes massive community investment from schools, churches, institutions, families and friends. There is still a lot of learning to do, but the first step is to care enough to learn.
Resources: The Modern Civil Rights Movement led by people like Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Diane Nash, Rosa Parks and John Lewis did not stop at social and political change. When he was assassinated, King had immersed himself into racial justice of an economic kind with the Poor People’s Campaign. It is a legacy of restorative justice unfulfilled and evidence of the inequity we still feel from centuries of American slavery. For a detailed account, including King’s stay in Chicago to take on urban racial injustice, read Taylor Branch’s “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68.”
For an illuminating dive into the the familial and communal shockwaves that occur after a child gets shot, read Pulitzer Prize-winning Mary Schmich’s story in the Chicago Tribune on Tavon Tanner and the bullet that ripped through him. He was one of 4,368 people shot in Chicago in 2016.
Questions: What goes through your mind when you think about violence in Chicago? Do you seek to learn individual stories or do you just shake your head at the statistic and move on? How can you become more engaged with what our neighbors face when it comes to context -- chronic poverty, absentee parents, lack of community investment, limited access to opportunity and jobs, access to gangs, a void of early childhood education -- that can breed fertile environments for violence?
Erin Chan Ding serves with Mosaic and attends Willow South Barrington.