LARGO — For the first time, Shenita Williams has stared into the eyes of the men accused of killing her 8-year-old niece, Paris Whitehead-Hamilton.
It was "scary" to see them, she said Tuesday, because "when you look at them they look like normal young men."
Paris' cousin LaShawn Crawford said it also has been hard for her this week to see the men accused of the murder. "What I see is a community lost. I see young men that went astray somewhere down the line. … I just feel very sad because I have a young son their same age."
Three of Paris' family members held a quick news conference Tuesday at the Pinellas Criminal Justice Center while jury selection continued in the trial of the men accused of killing the girl in a drive-by shooting.
The three men — Dondre Davis, Stephen Cortez Harper and Duong Dai Nguyen, all 21 — have appeared in the courtroom in dress shirts and ties, and they are facing the potential jurors, which means they also are looking in the direction of Paris' family and friends.
"It was very emotional to actually sit there and have them looking directly at us and having to look in their faces," Crawford said. "It was very emotional. But it's part of the process and all of us understand that."
Forgiveness for the loss on April 5, 2009, has not come easily, Crawford said, "because, to be perfectly honest with you, everyone has not forgiven, which is understandable. But in time we all hope that we can forgive them and move on and get closure after that."
Speaking for herself, Crawford said reaching the point of forgiveness "was very hard but I serve a good God and he has helped me forgive them."
Williams said attending this trial is going to be difficult for her. She was not surprised to hear that some potential jurors seemed very emotionally affected by the case, because she said any mother or father could relate to her loss. Williams raised Paris as her own after the death of her sister, who was Paris' mother.
Williams also said some good has grown from the tragedy. In her neighborhood around Preston Avenue, now renamed Paris Avenue, "We are really now, close knit. We call 911, we are crime-watching. We are really supporting those babies over there."
Paris great-aunt Rose Couch also appeared at the news conference, along with community activist and family friend Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter and St. Petersburg victim's advocate Mary Stockton.
During jury selection Tuesday, more potential jurors were excused from serving because of holiday travel plans, medical problems and other issues.
Jury selection will continue today. About 80 jurors remained in the pool after Tuesday's session, and attorneys said it's possible, but by no means guaranteed, that they could make opening statements sometime this afternoon.
Davis, Harper and Nguyen are charged with first-degree murder. Prosecutors say two of them shot into a house at 771 Preston Ave. S in St. Petersburg because they were angry at a man inside.
But Paris is the one who was shot and killed.
A fourth man, Mario Lewis Walls, has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and is expected to testify against the others.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or email@example.com.