Washington Post

Woman Goes on Trial In Ambush Shooting

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2001; Page B01

It started as a few tears in a mother's eyes, the dab of a tissue, a muffled sob. Barbara Graham was in a District courtroom yesterday, in a dark suit with a silk scarf and eyeglasses, quietly seated as her attorney delivered her defense.

With the gentle words about her dead son, Graham choked. She began to sob, then sob loudly. The jury was ushered out. "I want my son back. My baby . . . " A year had passed, and her anguish was still large and inconsolable.

Thus began a most unusual trial in D.C. Superior Court, where jurors will decide whether, in a crush of despair, the 49-year-old mother of four took the law into her own hands and attempted to avenge the shooting death of her youngest child.

The prosecutors say Graham picked up a .45-caliber handgun -- and shot the wrong man.

Whatever the jury concludes, Graham's trial stands out as a rare public dissection of a mother's rage and mourning, in a city with a notably high homicide rate where women lose their sons in gun battles with disturbing regularity.

In the District -- and nationally -- few mothers have been accused of using a gun to find justice for a child's slaying, experts say. "It's almost unheard of," said Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University who pointed out that Graham's case takes place in a city where many killings have gone unsolved and where the consequences of this are not fully understood.

"It gives the average citizen a very uneasy feeling about whether justice will prevail," Levin said, "and under those conditions there comes a feeling that you have to take the law into your own hands."

In the courtroom of Judge Michael L. Rankin, the central question facing 12 jurors this week is whether Barbara Ann Graham -- who has also been known by her married names of Lipscomb and Martin -- was so despondent and enraged by the killing of her son that she took aim at 22-year-old Kikko Smith two days after her son's funeral last January.

Prosecutors allege that she carried her dead son's handgun in her purse and that she approached Smith, asked his name twice, possibly confused it with the nickname of another young man and began shooting -- with help from her daughter's boyfriend, Erskine Moorer, 30, a co-defendant.

"What is this case all about?" posited Leutrell M.C. Osborne, assistant U.S. attorney, facing the jury. "Rage, revenge and retribution."

Defense attorneys offered a more sympathetic view to the jury. First, Graham's son was killed, said her attorney, Billy Ponds. In her grief, Graham called police day after day, with leads and information, hoping to get her son's killer arrested quickly.

But police let her down, Ponds said, particularly the night of Smith's shooting, when a detective arranged to meet Graham at 6 p.m. in the neighborhood where her son was shot and where tensions were still sharp. The detective was late, Ponds said. Smith was shot. Graham fled upon hearing gunfire, Ponds said.

Ponds raised questions about evidence -- including misidentifications of Graham in photographs and testimony from witnesses who did not come forward for months -- and suggested that police were not fair to Graham because she criticized them so ardently for their handling of her son's case.

Moorer's attorney, Douglas Wood, told the jury that his client had left the neighborhood before the shooting -- and that only "one person had the motive": Graham. "It was a tragedy borne out of a mother's grief for her son," he said.

The day's major testimony was from the victim. Smith, 23, is in a wheelchair, with a bullet lodged in his spine. It has been a year since he was ambushed, in the 2400 block of Elvans Road SE. He has been paralyzed, with debilitating bedsores, living mostly in the hospital.

His mother, Mary Ann Smith, wheeled him into the courtroom.

Asked who confronted him with a gun, Smith pointed emphatically to Graham, who sat still and somber. At another point, he pointed firmly at Moorer, saying Moorer joined the ambush as he ran from Graham, hoping to avoid her fire.

Smith testified that he and Graham's slain son, Le'Pierre Clemons, 19, once had a fistfight, in 1995 or 1996. But later, Smith said, they became friends again. Just two days before Clemons was killed -- on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday last year -- the two young men had smoked marijuana together in a car, where Clemons had showed him his gun, he said.

The gun, he said, was distinctive: a .45 with an extended clip that was held in place by a colorful collection of rubber bands.

Smith testified that he saw the spark of gunfire from both Graham's and Moorer's guns. After he had been hit by three bullets, including one that broke his ribs and severed his spine, he fell to his knees and then facedown on the parking lot pavement, near a town house development where Graham's daughter lived.

He said he heard someone say aloud: "You [expletive], you shot the wrong person."

Smith testified that he asked friends who were tending to him to move him so that he would not be run over by Graham and Moorer as they fled. Before Moorer left, he said, he stopped to tell Smith "he was sorry."

When police arrived, Smith said, he told them: "Le'Pierre's mother shot me." In the ambulance, en route to the hospital, he said, he named Moorer as well.

In yesterday's testimony, Smith flashed with anger only once, at the end, when he was asked whether he would ever walk again.

"Do I have to answer that?" he asked the judge.

The question was rephrased. The answer was still difficult.

Finally, he acknowledged that doctors say he will not walk.

Outside the courtroom, his mother said she felt the pain of her son having to make such admissions. He has two children, ages 1 and 2. A year before he was shot, his younger brother, David, was shot to death on Capitol Hill.

As for Mary Ann Smith, she still finds herself unnerved that the accused shooter in her son's case is another mother.

"When I was told it was a 48-year-old woman, that was the most devastating thing," she said earlier. " . . . Mothers that grieve don't go after teenagers," she said. "If every mother and father picked up a gun who had a child killed, you couldn't walk down the street."

But Graham's case has been rife with incongruities.

In the months after her son's death, Graham became active in Mothers on the Move Spiritually, a Prince George's County group that helped organize the Million Mom March last year against gun violence. Graham spoke out at the march and helped memorialize the dead.

Two months later, she was arrested in the shooting of Smith. Upon her arrest, police seized two guns from her nightstand and two more from elsewhere in her house.

Still, the women from Million Moms are backing her at her trial. The group's president, Bernadette Trowell, has come to court to show her support, even though Trowell cannot sit in the courtroom because she may be called as a witness.

Graham had raised three children in the District, then moved to Prince George's County in an effort to get her youngest child, Le'Pierre, away from the feuds and trouble of his old Anacostia neighborhood.

After he was killed, she fumed that progress on his case was too slow. Now her case has outpaced his. Police have arrested Daniel William Jackson Jr., known as DJ, for the killing and said he was a rival of Clemons's.

But Jackson has not been indicted. He has also not been kept in jail pending his trial, as Graham has.

Osborne, the prosecutor, said that he expects an indictment by March and that a judge turned down his request that the alleged shooter be kept in jail until trial.

"Cases are different depending on the evidence we have," Osborne said.

© 2001 The Washington Post