Growing Up Gangster

As Circuit Court Judge J.D. Williamson prepared to read the jury’s verdict, 15-year-old Courtney Brown clenched her fist so tightly that one of her new French-manicured nails popped off in her palm. “Not guilty.”

Her brother, Jawanza Brown, bolted from the defendant’s seat, nearly knocking over the chair. The 17-year-old burst out of the room. As TV news cameras watched, he danced defiantly.

His father, Keith Brown, put a finger to his lips, warning his family and friends not to celebrate in front of the families of the slain kids.

Jawanza’s friend DuJuan looked up, confused. “What happened?” Someone told him that Jawanza was free. “He beat it?” he asked.

Jawanza had been charged with killing two teenagers in 2005 near a basketball court in a housing project. Three people claimed that they saw him do it.

He beat the accusations in part because of the work of Brown, a minister and community activist. Brown did his own detective work and made one of the witnesses, Jaronn Harris, sound more like a suspect.

Both the defense and the prosecution called children to the stand as their main witnesses. The teens, from some of KC’s roughest inner city neighborhoods, got their first glimpse of how the justice system works. But they had a lesson for everyone else about what it’s like to grow up poor and black on the city’s East Side.

In March 28, 2007, the first day of Jawanza’s trial, in a courtroom on the eighth floor of the Jackson County Courthouse, 16-year-old Jaronn Harris described the double homicide he says he witnessed on the evening of August 17, 2005. He wore a striped shirt. He answered each question slowly, after much prodding from prosecutors Kevin Harrell and Teresa Moore.

Jaronn had been labeled a snitch for talking to the cops. Judge Williamson received word that Jaronn’s life had been threatened. The judge banned camera phones in the gallery for fear that someone would sneak a picture of the witnesses.

Jaronn said he met up with his friend Jawanza that summer night because the pair planned to go talk to the girls at drill team practice inside the Clymer Center, a gymnasium at the heart of the T.B. Watkins public housing project near 12th Street and Woodland. But the Clymer Center was too full, and the security guard told Jaronn and Jawanza to leave. As they walked away, Jaronn said, he noticed a 9 mm handgun in Jawanza’s pocket.

Jaronn, according to police, is the son of Jai Scott, who was convicted of cocaine trafficking in 1992 and has spent much of the past 15 years behind bars. Meanwhile, Jawanza’s father is an ordained minister and a community outreach specialist for an alternative school called Genesis. Brown and his wife, Barbara, named their second son after Jawanza Kunjufu, author of a book called Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys.

Near the basketball court, with the Clymer Center still in sight, they ran into two boys whom they didn’t know well. Chris “Hits” Jackson was 17, and his family had just moved from Kansas City, Kansas, into one of the three-story brick buildings with matching green banisters that make up T.B. Watkins. His friend, 18-year-old Antonio Hall, was visiting from the old neighborhood.

Jaronn said he noticed an intense look on Jawanza’s face. “What did you say about my boy?” Jawanza asked, according to Jaronn.

Chris grabbed his denim shorts at the waist, tugging them higher on his hips. Jaronn testified that Jawanza then took the gun out of his pocket and shot Chris several times.

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“What happened next?” Harrell, the prosecutor, asked him.

“He dropped his orange juice,” Jaronn said. “He fell.”

Jaronn said Jawanza turned to go but changed his mind. Jawanza wheeled back around, Jaronn claimed, and shot Antonio. As Antonio fell, the phone in his pocket started ringing.

Jaronn said he remembered running away but then turning back. Jawanza was gone, but Jaronn returned to look at the bodies.

Chris was motionless and looked dead, Jaronn recalled. But Antonio was still alive, lying on his belly, trying to crawl on his elbows. He looked Jaronn in the eyes, and Jaronn watched him die.

“I never seen anything like that before,” he testified.

During Jaronn’s testimony, four boys glared at Jawanza from their seats in the back row of the gallery. As the details of Chris’ and Antonio’s deaths spilled forth, their eyes narrowed into slits. They all wore red — red embroidered hoodies, red sneakers. They muttered angry words under their breath. This was the first time that they had seen Jawanza, Jaronn, or anyone from the neighborhood where their friends died. Their hatred radiated from their red clothes like invisible halos.

Moore, the assistant prosecutor, slipped silently through the low swinging door into the gallery and whispered something to one of the boys. They all looked up at her testily, then filed out of the courtroom, slowly, with swagger.

A.J. is the little brother of Chris, one of the slain boys. The three others were Chris’ friends. Outside, they sat sullenly on the stone steps of the courthouse. Their seat overlooked 12th Street and City Hall’s fountain-lined courtyard. It was almost lunchtime on a warm spring day, and men and women in business suits walked by purposefully.

“Man, they just some bitch niggas in there,” hissed one of the kids, who gave his name only as Mike.

Chris didn’t carry a gun, A.J. said, but he wouldn’t back down from a fight. “They probably saw the size of his fists and knew they was about to get they ass whupped. They had to shoot,” A.J. said with a bitter laugh.

Chris was an uncomplicated kid — he just liked basketball. His family moved out of T.B. Watkins the day after he died.

Mike explained that it was common for boys Jawanza’s age to have guns. “I know cats smaller than that who got guns. Everybody got guns. They just bitch niggas, snitchin’ on each other.”

Brown’s detective work into his son’s case uncovered something crucial for the defense: an alleged confession.

Brown got it from 15-year-old Rolf Pierre, who claimed that while he was in the McCune Residential Center, a juvenile detention facility in Independence, he befriended Jaronn.

When he took the stand, Rolf had a mushroom cloud of dark hair. He wore glasses and a tan shirt. He said that in science class at McCune, he heard Jaronn say he had “iced” some people on 12th and Woodland.

Rolf claimed that Jaronn also wrote down the details of the shootings “to make himself seem big, or something.”

Rolf said that, in the cafeteria at McCune, Jaronn slipped him a confession scribbled on toilet paper. “First I shot Chris IN his chest twice then I shot him in his kneck because he was falling back,” the note reads, in part. “Then I shot him in his head twice. So when he fell I shot him two more times in his back. So I looked at Antonio and he start reaching for something so I shot him in his stomach first, then his head. I think the second shot hit him in his head. So he fell and I took of running then something told me to go back so I ran back up there and Antonio was still moving so I shot him three more times … 1luv2you Keep yo head up. North Side Up!”

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Rolf said he slipped the note into the pocket of his civilian clothes when he went home on a weekend pass and gave it to Jawanza’s dad. “I didn’t want to see someone innocent go down for something someone else did. It wouldn’t sit well with me,” Rolf said.

Prosecutor Moore asked Rolf why he didn’t go to the cops and instead gave the note to Brown.

“I knew he was the person to give it to,” Rolf said. “His son was involved in this, so if anyone should get it, it should be him.”

Just to be sure, Rolf swiped some of Jaronn’s homework from his desk back at McCune. “We had a couple classes together. It was on his desk, and I took it. I figured y’all need to verify that that’s his handwriting.”

“Are you gonna be a detective when you grow up?” Moore asked.

“Naw,” Rolf said. “I want to play basketball.”

Jaronn was one of three witnesses who claimed to have seen Jawanza shoot Chris and Antonio. For her testimony, Cierra Jordan spoke convincingly of having watched as Jawanza pulled the trigger. She wore a hot-pink headband in her shiny, dark hair. Prosecutors applauded the fact that she ignored the stigma of being a snitch and stuck around to talk to police, even though she gave them a fake name.

The defense had its own witnesses. They had been discovered by Brown. Brown talked to neighborhood kids to find out what really happened that night.

One of the witnesses Brown dug up was Ashley Mims. She testified at the trial that she saw Jaronn running from the crime scene. She said she heard her aunt yell at him, “Boy, get that gun out of the gutter.”

Brown discovered that Jawanza’s girlfriend at the time of the shootings also knew something. When petite, 16-year-old Jasmine Graves took the stand, she giggled. Real court didn’t look the way it does on TV, she realized as she sat there, with all those people looking at her and some lady typing everything she said. She wore a yellow shirt and a matching belt.

Shortly after the killings, Jasmine claimed that she was at a friend’s house when she overheard Cierra talking on the phone with a friend. “I heard her say that Jaronn Harris was the one who did it, and they were going around telling people that Jawanza did it,” Jasmine said. “I was shocked. I left the room and called Mr. Brown.”

Moore wanted to know why her first call would be to Jawanza’s father. “When you heard what Cierra said, you didn’t call 911?”

Jasmine looked at the prosecutor as though she were crazy.

“You didn’t go to the police station?”

Resentment colored Jasmine’s voice. “I didn’t see the shooting, so there was no point.”

During her testimony, nobody asked Jasmine why she thought Cierra was lying. But she had a theory. “It might have been because of me,” she said softly, after her testimony. “Me and her got in a fight once, awhile back, and Jawanza said something to her about it afterwards. She holds grudges for a long time.”

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Eighteen-year-old Ameria Blair took the stand and answered questions without any reluctance. Her eyes were bright, and she looked stylish in a black jacket with a furry collar and “So Precious” in cursive letters printed on the back. She said she was there “to just keep it real.”

Ameria said she met Jawanza and Jaronn in 2004, when they were all court-ordered to stay at a juvenile detention center in Lee’s Summit called Hilltop. Ameria was placed at Hilltop her freshman year after assaulting her principal at Chester Anderson Middle School. Jawanza was there for marijuana possession, and Jaronn was there for possession of a cocaine-based substance and burglary. Ameria traded letters with Jaronn; she testified that Jaronn wanted her to be his girlfriend. She said she wasn’t interested.

Shortly after the shootings at 12th Street and Woodland, Ameria testified, Jaronn called her. “I just did something real bad,” she said he told her. “If I tell somebody about it, I’ll go to jail.” He was breathing hard, but he wouldn’t tell her what he had done.

Jawanza’s lawyer, Basil North, a grandfatherly man with a white beard, asked her to confirm that the toilet paper confession was in Jaronn’s handwriting. She agreed that it looked like Jaronn’s “sloppy printing.”

Moore confronted Ameria with a letter that Ameria had written to Jaronn.

“‘I’m shapely and my hair is growing and I’m looking cute.’ Do you remember writing that? Didn’t you say you wanted to be Mrs. Jaronn Harris?”

“I wrote that just to make him feel good,” Ameria said. “He was locked up. When you’re locked up, you want to get letters.”

Moore read another passage. “‘Don’t worry about these dudes hitting on me because I’m saving myself for you. These dudes are silly anyway — trying to be gangsters.'”

“I was just trying to be nice to him,” Ameria protested.

Moore kept reading. “‘You want to know how I feel about you? I love you.'” Moore looked up. “Are you denying that?”

“I don’t love him,” Ameria said.

Moore pointed out that Jasmine Graves is Ameria’s cousin, and Jasmine was Jawanza’s girlfriend. “You were going to do whatever it takes to keep Jawanza Brown out of jail.”

“Because we cool like that. I got his back.”

Before the jury returned with its verdict of not guilty, Jawanza wandered the hall, obsessively working his short hair with a coarse-bristled brush.

His sister, Courtney, stuck close by her mother’s side and snacked on chips from a vending machine. When asked what people in the neighborhood had said to her about the trial and about her brother, she said, “I don’t really go outside. I’m afraid someone’s gonna shoot up our house.”

Television news reporters arrived, and a photographer showed Jawanza how the different lenses in his camera bag worked. Jawanza looked on like a kid on a class field trip. Watching him from across the hall, a family member of victim Chris Jackson admitted, “He doesn’t look like a bad kid. I’ve seen worse. I’ve seen worse in my own family.”

When the verdict came down, Antonio’s mother was the first to cry. “He’s a killer! Ask his mother! He killed my son, and now he’s going to kill somebody else!” Her wails continued as her family led her down the hall and into an elevator. Jawanza’s friends tried to wait until the doors closed on a second elevator before they cheered, but their sounds of celebration clashed with the sounds of grief in the hallway.

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Mike, Chris’ friend, paced the outside hallway, his anger obvious. “Bitch ass niggas,” he said.

Chris’ mother emerged from the courtroom, supported by a friend. Tears ran down her face. A woman in pink spandex followed behind, yelling. “Naw, fuck that,” she said. “I’m talking about justice today. We gotta go through this all over again. It was a freaking conspiracy or something.”

Jawanza’s mother, Barbara, said softly to herself, “But they got the wrong person. The thing to do now is to find the right person.”

The Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office issued a statement that there was “insufficient evidence to conclude that Jaronn Harris is responsible for the deaths of Antonio Hall and Christopher Jackson.” Prosecutor Harrell declined to elaborate.

Charging Jaronn or anyone else in the homicides, Brown said, would mean that the prosecutor would have to admit that he was wrong to have gone after Jawanza. “And he’s not the kind of man to admit he was wrong,” Brown said of Harrell.

Brown said a few words to the TV reporters under bright camera lights, then rejoined his family. He told them, “If we don’t pursue this, our family will become targets. I rejoiced internally, but those families are hurting.”

“I just want to pack up our things and move out of KC,” Barbara Brown said.

They headed to Brown’s van. Jawanza jumped in the rearmost seats and slammed the door. Brown started driving east, toward home.

“Happy, son?” Brown called.

“Happy.”

Jawanza stared ahead for a few moments. Then he lowered his face into the cushion of the seat in front of him, his face resting on the backs of his hands. In the safety of the family van, he emitted a tiny, compressed victory yelp. “Yeeeeeeaaaah!”

Barbara called back to him, “I’d really like for you to stay in with us tonight.”

Brown pulled up to their two-story white house. It was a sitcom house, the stairway to the second floor near the front door, perfect for a girl to descend and meet her prom date. Jawanza yelled, “We ’bout to move!”

From the moment that she entered the house, Courtney checked out the windows, peeking through the blinds for strange and suspicious cars, people, anything. “Those boys, with their attitudes, who knows what they’re gonna do,” Barbara said.

Jawanza changed into a brown Enyce sweatshirt and matching pants. Courtney called, “There’s a car parked outside! There’s one person in it. But I’m still scared.”

Jawanza wolfed down an ice cream sandwich and talked about what he’d like to do now that he was free. “I like to look at animals,” Jawanza said. “At the zoo and at Sea World.”

He told his dad that he was going to meet friends and they were going to McDonald’s. Brown gave him a long list of ways to be careful, and Jawanza responded impatiently. He yanked the front door open and darted out but popped back in quickly and said, “I love you.”

“Love you, too, son,” Brown said.

Brown looked down at the table. “I’m not going to side with my children if they’re in the wrong. But I did not think my child was a murderer.”

The white door of Jaronn’s house in T.B. Watkins was scrawled with pencil notes: “Phyllis, don’t lock me out the house again!” Jaronn answered the door on a sunny spring day wearing a bright-green zippered jacket and a removable set of gold teeth. His 1-year-old brother, wearing only a diaper, came to the door as well, grinning with a few new teeth and banging a cell phone against the inside of the screen.

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Jaronn said he didn’t appreciate being called a murderer during Jawanza’s trial. The hard part about testifying, he said, “was looking at his mama — Antonio’s mama.” He said he told the truth.

“I just remember the flashes,” he said of the shootings. “I didn’t actually see — I just remember the flashes.”

He knew Jawanza before they spent time at Hilltop together. They were friends then, but not anymore. “He was cool. But I never expected him to do something like this,” Jaronn said. He denied writing the confession note. “I know what him and his daddy tryin’ to do. They say they have some confession note from me.”

He said that, a short time before the trial, Brown drove past Jaronn’s house on Woodland in his red van, pointing a finger at Jaronn. Brown hates him, he said, “Because I testified against his son, that’s why.”

Jaronn said he had been kicked out of the De La Salle Education Center a few days earlier. It was Jaronn’s fourth day in class at De La Salle, he said, and he was called to the principal’s office, shown a story from The Kansas City Star regarding Jawanza’s trial, and told that he wasn’t allowed to come back to school because he might be a threat to the other students.

He had signed up for Job Corps the previous day, he said. He was supposed to be a senior in high school this year.

A week after the trial ended, two kids sat in a white car at 36th Street and Mersington, east of Prospect, on a rainy night. A.J. was in the passenger seat, picking the seeds out of a green marijuana bud the size of a kitchen sponge.

“You smoke the cush?” asked Mike, who sat in the driver’s seat. “This right here is presidential — $50 for two joints.”

Just after the edge of the blunt was reddened by a lighter, they heard a single pop from inside a house just yards from the car. A.J. and Mike looked at each other, then at the house. There was a metallic click-click as Mike cocked the 9 mm handgun that had been resting in his lap. He had just gotten it that day. It was worth $900, he said.

Mike backed into A.J.’s driveway so that the car pointed streetward. He turned the headlights off. The two grew silent as another car drove slowly past.

“They’re on that stick,” A.J. said of the occupants of the house, who he said he sees regularly, on their front lawn, fighting with each other. The “stick” he referred to is also called “wet,” the name for cigarettes laced with PCP.

“You see what we go through,” Mike said. “You see what chances we gotta take. Niggas got to ride around with guns and shit.” Mike explained that it’s no longer about gangs. It doesn’t matter what street you grew up on.

“Niggas just have problems with niggas,” A.J. added. “It’s not no streets like that.”

The conversation turned to Jawanza.

“That little bitch ass took some of my people,” Mike said. “These cats, just rolling around here trying to get an M under they belt. Some niggas think that shit is cool.”

“It was all some little petty shit,” A.J. said. “They didn’t want to box. It really wasn’t about anything. My bro ain’t from they ‘hood, you know what I mean? He ain’t from down there. He down there, hoopin’ on them, doin’ ’em bad, takin’ they females.”

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The way that Chris and Antonio were killed violated the rules of the street, Mike said. Gunplay is reserved for conflicts over money. “Real niggas would have took that ass-whupping … and hollered at the nigga another time, you feel what I’m saying? If it came to a bigger thing after that, it came to a bigger thing…. But not over that. It wasn’t worth that.”

They said it doesn’t matter that the killer is walking free.

“Karma’s real as fuck. Real as life,” Mike said. “That shit come back so hard, on everybody, everything you do. The game will touch ’em.”

A.J. got out of the car and walked into his mom’s house. Mike stayed in the car a moment longer. He said he can’t go anywhere — not even McDonald’s — without his gun.

“But I value life … I would love to see the day when everyone is cool. When I don’t have to sit here looking over my shoulder.” Two boys died. Another was wrongly accused of their murder. Then their friends assigned the rules of the streets.

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