Times Staff Writer
LARGO — On a night of revenge between warring neighborhood gangs, two men pointed assault rifles at a small house with a sleeping 8-year-old girl inside and "the shots just kept coming," a prosecutor said Wednesday.
The men fired their AR-15s more than 50 times until "the house was filled with smoke." Then a woman inside "watched her 8-year-old niece collapse and die right in front of her."
That was how Paris Whitehead-Hamilton was killed on April 5, 2009, Assistant State Attorney Doneene Dresback Loar told the jury.
And because of it, three men should be found guilty of first-degree murder for "shooting not once, not twice, but 56 times into a small home occupied by many people," the prosecutor said.
After more than two and a half years since the murder and nearly three days of jury selection, attorneys started trial proceedings Wednesday evening for a crime that outraged St. Petersburg.
The shooting sparked an enormous outcry because an 8-year-old girl, awakened from sleep in her home, was killed for no apparent reason. The aunt who adopted her, Shenita Williams, said she has worked to forgive the men. She is also attending the trial to gain a sense of closure.
After Loar delivered a short opening statement, attorneys for two of the three defendants — Dondre Davis and Duong Dai Nguyen — said they would reserve the right to give their opening statements later.
Only one defense attorney spoke to the jury Wednesday. Keith Hammond told jurors that his client, Stephen Cortez Harper, did not pull a trigger that night. All three defendants are being tried together for the girl's murder and all three face up to life in prison if convicted.
The attorney said Harper was in a car filled with four men, and that they were driving through St. Petersburg looking for a rival named Markeath "Monster" Fielder, who had antagonized the others earlier in the evening.
The plan, he said, was just to look for him. The men drove around the block of the house where Paris lived, and didn't see Fielder.
But then, Hammond said, Davis and Nguyen veered from the plan. They simply jumped out in front of Paris' house and started shooting.
"He's sitting in the back seat of the car, doesn't even have a gun on him," Hammond said of his client. He urged jurors to find Harper not guilty.
Loar set the scene for the events leading up to the killing. She said that on the night of April 4, 2009, several people congregated outside the Uhuru House in St. Petersburg after a dance, and people from rival groups faced off — the Bethel Heights Boys, based at Citrus Grove Apartments off 16th Street S, and a group from the Harbordale neighborhood called 8-Hype. "These neighborhood gangs, they don't like each other," she said.
After one man associated with the Harbordale group fired a gun in the direction of the Bethel Heights group, "The Bethel Heights guys were disrespected. They gathered into two vehicles and they went looking," Loar said.
They were looking for Fielder, the man who reportedly shot in their direction. So they drove into the Harbordale neighborhood, where one of the men shot into a group of people, striking one person.
And later, in the early morning hours of April 5, they drove to Paris' house. There were a total of nine people inside. That's where the shooting erupted.
The fourth man charged in the shooting, Mario Lewis Walls, drove the car to Paris' house. He has already pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Loar said Walls will testify against the others.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8232.