By Safiya Merchant and Eric Ferkenhoff
Three days after Michelle Obama flew to Chicago for the funeral of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, the slain honor student who performed at last month’s presidential inauguration, a judge ordered two men to be held without bail on first-degree murder charges amid the swirl of politics set off by her death.
In laying out the charges, prosecutors detailed how Hadiya, a majorette with her King College Prep high school band, got caught up as the unintended target of a gang retaliatory shooting – allegedly by suspects Michael Ward, 18, and Kenneth Williams, 20.
The men also face charges of attempted murder and various weapons offenses.
During a Monday evening news conference to announce the arrests, police brass and some politicians seized on the weapons charges as evidence that Chicago, the state of Illinois and the nation need to toughen the very gun laws for which at least one of the suspects had previously served time. (Had sentences for weapons offenses here and elsewhere been more strict, this reasoning goes, Hadiya might not have been slain as the shooter would still be locked up.)
Whatever the case, there is little denying that Hadiya’s death is the subject of wide debate even as it hit so personally for those who knew her. This became clear during the funeral at an overwhelmed Greater Harvest Baptist Church Saturday.
The audience included local and national political figures. Yet during the service, which has been widely seen on public video sites like YouTube, the tone was set by relatives, friends, classmates – those who eulogized with raw emotion.
The charges of first-degree murder, attempted murder and related weapons offense were filed on the eve of President Obama’s State of the Union address and ahead of Obama’s visit to Chicago Friday to talk about the everyday violence he has repeatedly cited as a stain on this country, including the day more than two dozen people were gunned down at a Newtown, Conn. elementary school.
It was that mass shooting, which claimed 20 children, that set off a gun debate that got a hearing Tuesday in the United States Senate.
According to police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, Ward told investigators the killing was a mistake. The two men, McCarthy told reporters, misidentified Pendleton as a rival who shot Williams last summer. The Harsh Park shooting, he said, was an act of retribution that, like so many others in Chicago, the nation’s murder capital, claimed an innocent victim.
McCarthy, who has joined Mayor Emanuel, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn to push for tougher gun laws locally, stressed to reporters that Pendleton’s death could have been avoided, noting Ward was at the time on probation for a previous weapons crime.
“This incident did not have to occur,” McCarthy said at the press conference. “And if mandatory minimums existed in the state of Illinois, Michael Ward would not have been on the street to commit this heinous act."
Pendleton had performed with the King College Prep marching band at President Obama’s inauguration in January. She later became the 42nd victim of Chicago’s list of homicide victims this year alone, as previously reported by The Chicago Bureau.
The unassailable amount of crime that plagues Chicago and the unfairness of Pendleton’s death are the reasons why Emanuel and McCarthy also recently announced the deployment of 200 more police officers to patrolling streets.
At the funeral, near 51st Street on Chicago’s South Side – not far from Obama’s Chicago home – hundreds of people lined up to pay their respects, with many being turned away.
Unlike most Chicago funerals, the site was protected by strict security measures. Photographers and other members of the media were to stand on sidewalk across from the home, blocked by a metal barricade. It was a frigid morning and afternoon, yet many people stayed outside of the funeral home gates for the occasion.
Indeed, the funeral’s speaker lineup was extensive, with speeches given by Pendleton’s mother, teachers and friends as well as ministers. Videos, audio and photos of speakers at the high-profile funeral have gone viral on the Internet.
In one video, Pendleton’s mother, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, wears a bright pink flower pinned to her black funeral outfit. She made jokes, even saying “this is about what Antony and Cleopatra did.”
Despite the impact of the news of her daughter’s fate, Cowley-Pendleton said she was still sure of one thing.
“But the first thing out my mouth was I’m not worried about her soul, I know where she is,” Cowley-Pendleton said.
She also gave recognition to the fact that many other families have also experience losing children to violence in Chicago.
“And those of you that do know how hard this is, I’m sorry,” said Cowley-Pendleton, who was expected to attend Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday evening with other family members. “I’m sorry. No mother, no father should ever have to experience this.”
Rev. Michael Pfleger, a well-known Catholic priest and Chicago activist, echoed this sentiment of the continual violence when he stepped up to the mic.
“Hadiya’s beauty and her innocence and her joy and her contagious smile cause each of us to recognize our failure as a society that has allowed guns to become part of our wardrobe,” Pfleger said. “Cleo and Anthony, your anguished faces of pain and hurt become the face of parents all across America who have loved and raised and done all the right things for their children and now find themselves losing them.”
At different points during the funeral, people still stood outside the gates even when they couldn’t get inside. One man standing outside was 23-year-old Timothy Johnson, who said he knows Pendleton’s cousin. He said when he went to Morgan Park High School, a student died every year, some of which were due to violence, and many murders have occurred in his own neighborhood.
“I am very saddened by her death, like I’ve lost a lot of friends young so it hurts to see these students hurt but I feel like with Michelle Obama coming, it’s been turned more into a spectacle than an actual funeral,” Johnson said.
“I feel like her death is being honored the way it should be, but other deaths should be honored the same way,” he added. “I don’t want to take away anything from her death from being honored because she deserves all of this, but that treatment should be given to other parents who have lost their children…they should feel this same comfort and support from the community.”