One by one, almost all of the defendants have pleaded out to lesser charges in the shooting death of Aliyah Smith four years ago in a neighborhood they call “The Trap.”
They call it that, officials said, because there’s only one way in and out of Nedra Court, the southside block fenced off from the rest of Meadowview by an 8-foot metal barrier where Aliyah Smith, 15, was shot in the head and killed while telling her friends who had come under attack to “Get down, get down,” witnesses said.
Now, only two of the original 12 defendants are left, and the only way out for them is to beat the murder charges they’re facing in a case that went to trial Monday in Sacramento Superior Court.
In their opening statements, the lawyers for D’Andre Leon Monroe and Marcel Bullard Jr., both 22, took the same approach as the attorneys for the nine others who were accused in the fatal Jan. 3, 2010, shooting.
They admitted their clients are guilty of something in the killing that resulted from a girl fight at a party in a vacant house a mile or so away. They said it just isn’t murder.
Deputy District Attorney Thien Ho said the evidence will show the last two defendants standing are the two who are most culpable.
“They aimed to shoot,” Ho said of Monroe and Bullard. “They aimed to kill.”
Ho said an estimated dozen young people had descended on “The Trap” around 12:30 a..m., after the party fracas, looking for Aliyah and two of her friends, thinking they stole their cellphones.
Bullard and Monroe had been attending another party in Del Paso Heights when they got the call that the sister of a girlfriend needed some backup down on Nedra Court, the prosecutor said.
According to Ho, Aliyah’s opponents in the earlier fight gathered in the street in front of the apartment where the girl was staying with friends, looking for a “rematch.”
That’s when Bullard and Monroe pulled out the weaponry, Ho said, popping off two or three shots into the air.
Inside a white Mitsubishi sedan with several of their former co-defendants, “They rounded the corner in front of 92 Nedra Court,” Ho said. “As they did so, the defendants were sitting in the back seat. Marcel Bullard turned to D’Andre Monroe and told him, ‘We were punks,’ that they were punks for only shooting up into the air, that they were being punks for not shooting into the house.”
As the car slowed down in front of the apartment, “D’Andre Monroe lifted the gun and pointed out the right front passenger window,” Ho said. “And he aimed it. Not at the house next door. Not at the ground. Not at the sky. But at a house with four people in it.”
Aliyah Smith, who was peeking out a front bedroom window, told her friends inside to get down – just before a gunshot tore through her cheek and into her head and left her dead on the spot.
Defense attorney Jan Karowsky, representing Monroe, admitted his client fired the bullet that killed Smith.
“Whether it was testosterone, or stupidity, and then in a spontaneous, stupid and criminal gesture, D’Andre Monroe struck the gun out the window and fired,” Karowsky said. “We’re not here to say it was anything less than tragic and stupid and criminal.”
The question for the jury, Karowsky said, is whether it was murder, or at least a first-degree murder, which requires proof of willful premeditation. He told the jury he’ll be asking at the end of the trial for it to consider a verdict of shooting into an inhabited dwelling.
Bullard’s attorney, Kenneth L. Rosenfeld, said in his opening statement that “the position of my client is much different than the position of Mr. Karowsky’s client.”
“There is somebody who is accountable, there is somebody who fired that fatal shot, and that person and that person alone is accountable for his actions,” Rosenfeld said.
It wasn’t Bullard, Rosenfeld said, and Bullard didn’t encourage Monroe to do any shooting, either, as the prosecutor charged.
Witnesses who testified Monday said that as many as four shots cracked through the night that Aliyah Smith died. Rosenfeld said the “evidence will be disputed” on who fired the handguns. He did not deny that his client might be responsible for at least one of the shots.
“If he did shoot a gun up into the air, it’s certainly not a positive,” Rosenfeld told the jury. “It’s certainly not a good fact for the defense. It’s certainly not helpful for Marcel Bullard. But you know what it’s not? It’s not murder.”
It could be illegal possession of a firearm or negligent discharge of a firearm, Rosenfeld said, “but he’s not charged with any of those things. We’re here for the ultimate offense.”
The deputy DA told the jury that Sacramento police homicide detectives encountered an unusual level of resistance from potential witnesses in a case that took them almost eight months to solve.
“At every corner and at every turn, they were being stonewalled and lied to,” Ho said of detectives Jason Kirtlan and Hans Merten. “They were encountering a culture that valued silence and dishonesty over the truth.”
Eight of the original 12 defendants in the case – Mary Adams, Shavana Adams, Talisha Harston, Tyrell Penney, Brielle Randell, Natosha Rassberry, Loren Searcey and Alison Williams – all pleaded no contest to being an accessory to murder. They all were sentenced to five years of probation and a year or less in jail.
Another defendant, Marschell Brumfield, now 23, last year pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and is awaiting sentencing.
Charges were dismissed against another of the original 12, Omar Davis.
At least one of the previous defendants was beaten and shot at by people who told him to “stop snitching,” Ho said in court papers, and at least a few of the original defendants are expected to testify against Bullard and Monroe, according to the DA’s witness list.