LARGO — The courtroom stayed nearly silent as a jury convicted three men of murdering 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton. The killers showed little emotion. One, in a bright pink dress shirt, hung his head. Another, in a blue shirt and tie, sank his head into his hands.
But then a soft cry rose from one of the courtroom benches, growing louder until it turned into a haunting wail that filled the room. The cries came from the mother of defendant Dondre Davis, the gasping of a woman whose son was about to be led away forever.
No one understood that piercing wail better than Shenita Williams, the aunt who had been raising 8-year-old Paris at the time Davis and a friend shot her.
"I felt that pain because she lost her child, like I lost mine," said Williams, who has said she feels empathy for the killers' families. The aunt of the victim said the cries of Davis' mother "took me back to that day."
The court system closed a chapter on Wednesday as the jury convicted all three defendants, Davis, Stephen Cortez Harper, and Duong Dai Nguyen, of first-degree murder. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley sentenced each to life in prison without the possibility of parole. All three are 21.
But several in the courtroom forcefully argued that the story is not over. What's left, they said, is for St. Petersburg to fight back against the toxic mix of guns, gangs and horrible choices that led to a firestorm of gunfire on April 5, 2009, including one bullet that killed a little girl who had gone to bed for the night.
Trial testimony indicated the shooting was the result of four men aligned with one gang who wanted to shoot and kill a rival gang member nicknamed "Monster," who had reportedly shot in their direction.
"I thought I understood a lot about our community," the judge said, but added, "this trial in some ways made me feel more sad about the status of part of the community than I can remember feeling."
Referring to the AR-15 assault rifles used to blast 56 rounds into the house where Paris lived, Ley said it was hard to believe "the extent to which the high-powered weapons that we think of belonging in wars overseas were available to the young men."
She lamented the "intelligent, strong young men who should be our future, and instead are making choices to go firing away at each other like we live in some movie."
LaShawn Crawford, Paris' cousin and a spokesperson for the family, told the court that family members have worked to forgive the defendants, but they also believed the outcome was fair. "The verdict has been read, justice has been served, there is not going to be anything positive come out of more violence," Crawford said.
"These guns, we've got to put an end to that madness, that mentality, you are more than that," Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter said in court while looking at the newly convicted killers. She is a community activist and friend of Paris' family.
Sevell Brown, also a family friend and longtime St. Petersburg activist, praised the verdict and thanked prosecutors. "What happened today in this courtroom, your honor, is going to send signals throughout this community and will resonate with other gang members," Brown said.
The shooting stemmed from a rivalry between a neighborhood gang called the Bethel Heights Boys and another from the Harbordale neighborhood called 8-Hype, according to testimony. Sheriff's deputies kept a close watch in the courtroom for any friction between different groups, and Ley had warned people not to wear colors or clothing associated with gangs.
There were few incidents, although one woman came to court in a sleeveless dress that revealed a tattoo covering her back — "Bethel Girl" — and someone leaving the court room on Wednesday shouted something profane and derogatory. Deputies escorted him out.
A key moment in the trial came Friday, when jurors heard testimony from Mario Lewis Walls, who was driving the car when he, Davis, Harper and Nguyen came to the house at 771 Preston Ave S. They hoped to see Monster. They didn't, but Walls testified that Davis and Nguyen hopped out of the car anyway and shot into the house.
Defense attorneys used a variety of arguments. Harper's attorney said his client was guilty of third-degree murder or manslaughter, but not first-degree murder. No one even claimed he had fired a gun. But testimony indicated Harper helped obtain the guns and gave the directions to Preston Avenue.
Attorneys for Davis and Nguyen said the state had not proven it was their client in the car, saying Walls had a reason to lie: the hope of getting a better deal for himself. Walls has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, but has not been sentenced.
Williams, the woman who was raising Paris, seemed unusually calm at the trial on Wednesday. She said she has already ground through the most wrenching emotions — grief, loss, anguish and more — and this was not the hardest day she had weathered. For her this was about closure.
Williams said she hopes young men in St. Petersburg make better choices, especially if they remember what happened in this case. "Five families have been changed for the rest of their lives," she said.
Asked what she would be doing today, she shrugged and said, "I'm cooking. I've got to eat." She said, as she has said before, that she is a Christian who forgives the men who killed Paris. And at some point today, before or after cooking Thanksgiving turkey and dressing, "I'm also going to pray for the families."
And she has something else on her to-do list. Since Paris died, Williams said, she has never visited the cemetery where Paris is buried. She wasn't ready.
But outside of the courthouse on Wednesday, Williams said she feels differently now that the trial is done. Soon, she said, she will be ready to lay flowers on Paris' grave.
Staff Writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at email@example.com. Staff Writer Kameel Stanley contributed to this report.