It was supposed to be a celebratory night. And, until the gunshots rang out, it was.
At the Go-Go themed graduation party teens chatted, danced, and goofed off for photos with friends. A variety of neighborhood bands played in the church rec room rented for the event.
“Everybody was partying, having a good time,” a Roosevelt High School 10th grader remembered this week.
“It was noisy, like a party, there was dancing,” recalled another student.
But the party was shut down that June evening after a scuffle between two neighborhood groups broke out, and the “hyped” teens spilled out of the rec room and onto Georgia Avenue. Some started to make their way home, others lingered, chatting and drinking in a nearby McDonald’s parking lot.
Then shots rang out.
Sixteen-year-old Jamal Bell crumpled to the sidewalk.
Near him, two others lay wounded.
Today, nearly two years after that June 2010 graduation party, jurors were scheduled to begin deliberations in the case against Zachary Sims, the teen prosecutors say fired those gunshots on June 18, 2010.
Over the past two weeks jurors have heard arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys, as well as testimony from Bell’s and Sims’ friends, the two surviving victims, and other eyewitnesses to the shooting.
Prosecutors say that Sims shot Bell and two others in a show of neighborhood bravado while friends from his neighborhood sung out “woo-woo,” their call signal in the crowd.
Sims’s defense attorney says the teen is innocent, that someone else entirely, someone wearing dark clothes that night, is responsible for the murder and assault.
Sims, now 19 years old, has sat quietly through the trial; on Monday he told Judge William Jackson that he would not take the stand and testify. Last week, as his grandfather was questioned by prosecutors, he wiped at his eyes and cheeks with a napkin handed to him by a US Marshall. He smiled, appearing bashful, when a female friend testified that he “looked good” in the pink dress shirt and tie he wore for trial.
At closing arguments he appeared to clench his jaw, at times blinking rapidly, as Prosecutor Steven Gripkey stood over him, accusing him of murder.
The walk out of the Go-Go was Jamal Bell’s “last walk,” Gripkey said.
“Shots rang out. Fired by this man, this young man here,” Gripkey said, pointing down at Sims. “He didn’t confront Jamal Bell. This was a hit from behind… a fight and a jump on Jamal Bell and his friends.”
Gripkey said Sims fired a gun four times that night, the shots in succession, into a crowd of people in front of him, striking Bell and two teenage girls.
“My leg gave out. When I fell [my friend] let my hand go. [She] ran behind a car,” one of the surviving victims, told jurors last week. “I was lying there on the street ‘cause I had gotten shot.”
One witness said she had felt a gun on Sims that night when he hugged her. Another said that in the days after the shooting he overheard Sims saying that he was responsible.
But that same witness also testified that he didn’t believe Sims, that it sounded like Sims could have been joking. That witness said another teen, David Weston, had shot the gun that night. He knew because Weston had told him so.
And that’s why defense attorney Kevin Mosley says Sims is an innocent man.
Weston was at the Go-Go that June night, and in the government’s evidence he is seen in videos from the party’s photo booth, mugging for the camera with Sims and other friends.
He did not testify at trial; he was killed three months after Bell, about a mile away from the Go-Go shooting, and just days before witnesses were scheduled to testify before the Grand Jury in Sims’ case.
“It is a tragedy that Jamal Bell was killed,” Mosley said. “It is another tragedy that Zachary Sims sits before you charged with a crime that he didn’t commit.”
One eyewitness to the shooting, a high school Spanish teacher who was on her way to a party when the shots rang out from the sidewalk adjacent to her car, said she saw a man with a dark complexion, in dark clothing, shoot from the sidewalk four times.
On Monday, pointing to a video from the Go-Go, Mosley told jurrors that that testimony meant that Sims, seen in the video wearing a white shirt, could not be the shooter.
Weston, in the video as well, is also wearing a white shirt.
At the time of Sims’ arrest, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty and MPD Chief Cathy Lanier weighed in on the crime.
“All the homicides that happen in D.C. are very troubling and we always have a great sense of relief when we bring the killers to justice. This one is particularly disconcerting,” Fenty said.
Said Lanier, “Not only has Jamal Bell’s family had a tremendous loss… but also Zachary Sims’ family has now lost one of their family members…We see family members suffer, over and over again with this senseless violence.”
Zachary Sims Sr. commented on Homicide Watch in January, saying he believed his son was innocent.
my son states that he is in fact innocent of the charges agaisnt him and I have to believe my son because he has always told me the truth about his activities in society. other witnesses have stated the same thing.yet he is still being held for this crime. I trust that justice will be served in this case. I wish the family of Jamal Bell well as they struggle to deal with their lost. GOD bless all concerned!