he courtroom, crowded with bailiffs, was braced for trouble. But in the end, it was mostly sadness that filled the legal proceeding.
One mother cried quietly in the front row for her 15-year-old daughter, shot to death Jan. 3. Around her, mothers and sisters of the suspects openly wept. Some of the suspects, handcuffed and facing a judge, cried as well.
Twelve teenagers appeared in Sacramento criminal court that day to answer charges that they killed young Aliyah Smith, a student at River City High School in West Sacramento, while seeking retribution for a fight that took place between two girls. Eight of those suspects are not old enough to vote – some not even old enough to drive – but they are now considered adults in the eyes of the court.
The case is startling in its scope: No Sacramento-area murder prosecution in recent history has involved so many defendants, let alone so many minors.
It marks the latest iteration of a prosecution tactic growing more common in Sacramento. Police and prosecutors, frustrated by a relentless procession of youth violence, have grown more assertive in assigning criminal liability to multiple people associated with a crime.
Even so, the circumstances of the Aliyah Smith case have some questioning the decision to accuse all 12 defendants – and not just the two alleged triggermen – of murder.
“Senseless violence is driving these decisions. … This is a senseless death and this is pushing prosecutors to be more aggressive,” said Tom Johnson. a veteran defense attorney and former prosecutor not involved in the case. But, he added, “Are we at the limit there in this one?”
Victim, 1 defendant fought
According to Sacramento police, it all started with a girl fight.
At a house party in the hours before the fatal shooting, Smith twice fought with suspect Talisha Harston, 16, according to a request for an arrest warrant written by homicide detectives.
Smith left the party for a friend’s home on Nedra Court. “The Trap”” as Nedra is known, is a notoriously poor and crime-plagued pocket in the Meadowview neighborhood.
Harston and five girlfriends, all minors, followed, walking the mile and a half to the Trap to retrieve a cell phone they allege was stolen during the exchanges, according to the warrant request.
One girl called an older sister, who showed up in a car with five friends, police allege. Three of them were adults, and two – Marcel Bullard Jr. and D’Andre Monroe – are accused of bringing guns.
Once at Nedra Court, the girls called Smith outside, according to the warrant request. When she did not comply, police say, Bullard and Monroe fired into the home from a nearby car. Smith died at the scene.
The roles each suspect played that night were not clear from the warrant affidavit, and police declined to give further details, citing the ongoing case. But detectives indicate in the affidavit that at least some of the suspects knew Bullard and Monroe were armed – which experts said could be a pivotal point in the case.
One witness in the Nedra Court area reported hearing a girl ask, “Are you all gonna have my back when we go down there?”
The witness told police of hearing a male voice respond, “Yeah, I’m not tripping, cause I got the ‘thing,’ ” which the witness took to mean a gun.
The witness reported later hearing a male voice suggest shooting up the home – “I’m just going to air it out” – and the same girl reply, “OK, well then do it.” That girl was not identified in the warrant request.
Soon after, the witness told police, there were gunshots.
State law requires charges
Accused of murder are half sisters Loren Searcey, 15, Natosha Rassberry, 16, and Alison Williams, 18; sisters Mary Adams, 15, and Shavana Adams, 17; and Brielle Randell, 15; Harston, 16; Omar Davis, 17; Tyrell Penney 17; Bullard, 18; Monroe, 18; and Marschell Brumfield Jr., 19.
The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office said prosecutors had no choice but to file charges in adult court against the eight defendants who are younger than 18 because of the allegations against them.
Under state law, revised by Proposition 21 in 2000, any juvenile 14 or older accused of murder with special circumstances must be tried as an adult. The special circumstances alleged in the Smith case stem from her killing having been carried out during a drive-by shooting, according to district attorney spokeswoman Shelly Orio.
Orio declined to further discuss the case or the reasoning behind the charges, saying her office does not comment on pending cases.
But experts say a key legal principle at play is that of accomplice liability.
State law can be interpreted broadly in determining who is directly involved in the commission of a crime. In Sacramento and elsewhere, prosecutors have used it to extend criminal liability to anyone in a car during a drive-by, for example, or the person who provided the weapon.
In the 2008 killing of 24-year-old Patrick Razaghzadeh, SacramentoCounty sheriff’s detectives used the theory to assign culpability to eight suspects. Though only one fired a gun, all eight started the fight that led to the gunfire, according to detectives. It didn’t help that nobody tried to stop the shooting, or cooperate with investigators.
In another recent example, five suspects were slapped with murder charges in August after one of them fired an AK-47 at 29-year-old Marcel Hatch, killing him. The carload of relatives were seeking retribution for an earlier fight, according to detectives.
In the Smith case, experts say the theory applies because, as described by detectives, all 12 defendants seemed to encourage and participate in the Nedra Court confrontation. Police officials went further, saying the defendants went there with the intention of harming Smith.
“This is a classic example of where we sometimes see (accomplice liability) – this type of crowd frenzy,” said Ruth Jones. a professor at the McGeorge School of Law.
Laurie Kubicek. a criminal and juvenile law professor at Sacramento State, said she sums up the concept like this: Choose your friends wisely, because you could be held accountable for their actions.
Also a likely factor in the case, experts said, is the natural and probable consequences doctrine – the idea that a person should know the potential outcome of his or her actions.
“It’s almost an argument of foreseeability,” Johnson said. “If going to this fight probably meant that somebody was going to die, then you’re going to be charged with murder.”
Youth violence a problem
The legal underpinnings are there, but they are not always applied with such vigor, experts agreed. And this could be the boldest local example yet.
“It’s a very aggressive decision by the office of the DA,” said Johnson, who has practiced law for 25 years. “It’s extending the natural and probable consequences (doctrine) out to its furthest edge I’ve seen.”
Observers, including those in law enforcement, say prosecutors could be motivated by a desire to crack down on youth violence, which remains a visible problem in Sacramento.
And particularly egregious cases – like a 15-year-old girl being shot because of a fight – hit raw nerves, said Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness.
“I do believe that society is outraged by this kind of behavior,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a sensible homicide, but this clearly is the kind of thing that is senseless.”
Gang violence, or even the simpler group mentality that appears to have played a role in the Smith case, is not new to Sacramento. But McGinness said law enforcement has witnessed a marked change in recent years in how potential suspects react when confronted.
In short, nobody is snitching.
“That’s the difference, I think. There’s a hardening on the part of the suspects – the people who are even tangentially involved in the crime,” the sheriff said.
When investigators find themselves faced with a lack of cooperation, oftentimes their only recourse is to seek charges, McGinness said.
Juvenile defense attorney Kevin Adamson, who is representing Penney, said he is seeing more cases in which prosecutors are forcing cooperation through prosecution.
“It’s not the only case I have where you have defendants who seemingly did not participate actively in the crime,” he said. “I think there’s a strategy there to arrest everybody you possibly can and essentially offer them deals to testify.”
In the Razaghzadeh murder case, charges eventually were dropped against five of the defendants in exchange for their testimony. Adamson suspects that will happen in the Smith case as well.
He acknowledged that the case was vetted by police, the District Attorney’s Office and a Superior Court judge who approved the arrest warrants.
“There’s nothing illegal about it,” he said. Still, the practice is worth scrutiny.
“Is it the right thing to do to arrest them on a murder charge to get them to cooperate?” he asked. “It’s a very aggressive tactic that I think most of the public would support. So from a political perspective, it’s a win-win. But if you’re one of these kids’ mothers, it’s not a win-win.”
Al Combatalade, who represents Harston, said there are 80 discs of interviews and 600 pages of evidence he has not yet seen in the case.
But based on what he has seen – the warrant request – and his interviews with Harston, he said the aggressive prosecution appears “draconian.”
Combatalade described his young client as “very nice” but “really very naive.” He said she wrote him a thank-you note after their first meeting, the only such card he’s gotten in 38 years of practicing law.
Harston, and likely the other defendants, never envisioned the night going so horribly wrong, Combatalade said.
“I know she’s heartbroken over what happened, and she’s scared to death of what might happen in the future,” he said. “We both agree it’s a huge tragedy for everyone concerned.”