The AK-47 used by Orlando Carter on Alabama Avenue and Nate SimmsPhotograph courtesy of US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. Next >>
on South Capitol Street.
A vigil at the scene of the South Capitol Street shooting.Photograph by Sarah L. Voisin/Getty Images. Next >>
Ronald Machen Jr., US Attorney for DC, and Police Chief Cathy Lanier at a press conferencePhotograph by Matt McClain/Getty Images. Back to Start >>
outside the courthouse.
In late April, less than a month after his arrest, Nate Simms walked into DC Superior Court and pleaded guilty to five counts of murder plus two counts of conspiracy to commit murder. Such pleadings are typically done under seal, but with the media frenzy over Malik Carter’s wrongful arrest, prosecutors hoped to spin a counter-narrative. “There was a lot of acid churning in the stomach,” Hegyi says, “because we just put a target on his back.”
Keeping a cooperator alive is no small feat. The jailhouse mantra “Snitches get stitches” is less an observation than a promise. Hegyi recalls working a Seventh District murder some years ago, in which a known cooperator was picked up on an unrelated misdemeanor and hauled to DC jail. Had prosecutors been notified, they might have stepped in to protect him. They weren’t told, and he was stabbed to death.
If Nate were murdered before the trial, prosecutors wouldn’t be able to use any of his sworn statements unless it could be shown that the defendants were involved in his killing. (The Sixth Amendment’s “confrontation clause” guarantees a defendant the right to face his accuser in court.) At one point, a jailhouse rumor circulated that somebody in DC, perhaps Orlando’s father, was looking for guys who would volunteer to get locked up with Nate and do a hit on him.
At his guilty-plea hearing, Nate asked to wear a hood in the courtroom. The government denied the request.
• • •
Nearly two years later, when the star witness of South Capitol appeared three weeks into the 2012 trial, the gallery in Courtroom 316 was a zoo. After so many days of crime-scene photographs, bagged evidence, and expert pathologists, spectators and jury alike had begun to get restless. Now the drama they were watching finally had its leading man.
Stone-faced US marshals stood at every door. TV news personalities, wire-service reporters, and a sketch artist camped out in the best seats. The victims’ families filled in behind them. The defendants sat in their Sunday best—cardigans, pastel oxfords, and bow ties. They chatted and smiled, looking for all the world like Howard University fraternity brothers awaiting an invitation to dance.
Nate wore a navy jumpsuit and leg irons. He was balding, and his ears stuck out from his hangdog face. Leaning into the microphone, he drawled a soft “G’mornin’.”
From the stand, Nate unspooled his story. Shaped by Brittin’s questions, it had a familiar arc: a ne’er-do-well who’d hit bottom, committed an unspeakable crime, and now wanted to make right.
“I was a sucker,” he said, choking on his tears. “People talk about ‘You’re a sucker for sitting on this stand.’ I was a sucker for not stopping what happened.” He continued: “The day will come when I gotta explain to my kids that Daddy can’t see them no more because he took somebody else’s babies away from them.” They would ask him the same question he had asked himself a thousand times: “Why? Why, Daddy? Why you do it?”
Sanquan Carter’s lawyer, Arthur Ago of DC’s Public Defender Service, was waiting to flay Nate on cross-examination.
I liked to watch Ago during the trial because his body language told me how things were going. On good days, he’d scribble furiously on his legal pad, bobbing his head like a robin and bouncing his leg so hard the table shook. On bad days, he’d shut his eyes and pinch his nose, as if awaiting a migraine. (None of the defense lawyers involved in South Capitol would speak to me for this article, nor would their clients.)
Ago pointed out that if Nate provided “substantial assistance” to the government, the prosecutors would ask his sentencing judge to go easy on him. Instead of serving five life sentences—one for each murder—Nate might do 25 years and walk.
Ago hauled out Nate’s grand-jury testimony—some 170 pages—and read aloud all the instances where he seemed to embellish his story or make up details. Here was a man, Ago argued, who would tell the government anything it wanted to hear. In jailhouse phone calls, Nate was recorded telling his girlfriend, “I plan on walking outta here at the end of the month. It’s a fight. And I plan on winning that fight.”
Thomas Heslep, Lamar’s attorney, accused Nate of being a con man who could cry on cue. Todd Baldwin, Rob’s lawyer, wanted to know why he hadn’t gone to the cops after the first shooting, on Alabama Avenue. If he’d wanted out, why hadn’t he turned to the police for protection?
Nate laughed at the suggestion. In Southeast, he told the jury, “the debt of witnessing a murder is not repayable.”
After five days of testimony, Nate stepped down from the stand. He shuffled past his friends and exited the courtroom, head held high, tears drying on his cheeks.
• • •
The sight of a father who has buried his son is a painful one. Norman Williams, Jordan Howe’s dad, was a leonine man made volatile by grief, and for 21⁄2 months he lurked in the gallery of Courtroom 316, eyeing the defense lawyers, muttering loudly, making the marshals uneasy.
Of Nate, Williams said: “He was dancing with the devil, and when you dance with the devil, you can’t just walk away and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ ” He went on: “He couldn’t get out. He was in too deep.”
Brishell Jones’s grandmother Patricia Jefferies wore a shirt with her granddaughter’s face on it until the judge forbade it. Jefferies would bring cupcakes for the prosecutors, peppermints for reporters, and a box of Kleenex for herself. She led a sorority of aunts and family friends who watched for any sign of injustice. Once, they caught a juror texting. Another time, they spotted Orlando winking and making kissy faces at a female witness. “Jesus had his Judas,” she’d say. “These boys are ours.”
Not every fact in a trial comes out under oath. Some get handed around by grandmothers who miss their babies. Here are some facts that don’t appear in any transcript: Brishell Jones’s favorite movie was The Color Purple. She loved Trinidad and Tobago, where she summered with her father’s family. She was stubborn and always right. She might have grown up to be a chef—she dreamed of owning a restaurant.
Jefferies talks to a picture of her granddaughter every night before bed. “Think of all that’s been stolen from us,” she says. “No prom. No high-school graduation. No college. No wedding day.”
• • •
In July, I paid a visit to another grandparent who misses his baby. Jefferson Best Sr. was sitting on his porch when I arrived, trying to escape the midday heat.
Best did everything right: He worked an honest job, driving a big rig around town; served as a deacon in the church; and ran his home like a quartermaster—no drinking, no cursing, no girlfriends, no leaving after dark. He and his wife, Ida Mae, had six kids, and when their adult daughter Laverne moved back in with her two young sons, Jefferson and Ida Mae helped raise them, too.
“They’re a tremendous family,” Hegyi, who still drops in on the couple, says. “They’re wracked with guilt, and it’s like, au contraire, you guys did everything you can. You need to let yourselves go. I’m quick to point out, hell, I had an uncle in prison. Just because somebody related to you went to prison, that has nothing to do with you.”