State seeks to salvage high-profile conviction in Hadiya Pendleton slaying in arguments before Illinois Supreme Court

More than a decade after the killing of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton put a national spotlight on Chicago’s entrenched problem with gun violence, Illinois prosecutors worked to salvage a conviction against the alleged shooter before the state’s highest court in Springfield.

Pendleton, an honors student and majorette who performed at then-President Barack Obama’s second inauguration days before she was killed, was fatally shot in a North Kenwood park where she was spending time with friends after finishing final exams at King College Prep High School on Jan. 29, 2013. The broad daylight gang-related shooting that felled Pendleton, an unintended target, spurred grief and outrage from City Hall all the way up to the White House, with questions about the teen’s slaying posed to Obama and his communications staff in the following days.

Though Micheail Ward, 30, was convicted of first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated battery following a lengthy jury trial in 2018, an Illinois appeals court last year overturned his convictions and ordered a new trial, finding that Chicago police detectives violated his rights by continuing to question him after he invoked his right to remain silent.

Now, the attorney general’s office is asking the Illinois Supreme Court to reverse the lower court’s ruling. Assistant Attorney General Eric Levin largely argued on Wednesday during oral arguments that there was significant evidence of Ward’s guilt even without his confession to police, meaning a jury would have likely come to the same conclusion regardless.

Ward’s attorney, though, stressed that his client’s foundational Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination were violated and argued that much of the other evidence against Ward was based on witness statements that were later recanted.

“He invoked three times. He said essentially the same thing: ‘I have nothing more to say about it,'” Ward’s attorney Stephen Richards said.

During trial, prosecutors alleged that Ward and his co-defendant, Kenneth Williams, allegedly members of the SUWU gang, targeted members of the rival 4-6 Terror gang at the park, their hangout, as part of an ongoing feud that saw Williams himself shot. Instead, though, the bullets hit Pendleton and two other classmates who were wounded.

Cook County prosecutors introduced testimony from nine King High School students who witnessed the shooting, among other evidence. Among the King students who testified, only one identified Ward as the shooter “though he did not become certain of that identification until trial,” according to the lower court’s opinion.

The state also called witnesses who previously told detectives that Ward made incriminating statements to them, but they later recanted at trial.

Levin argued to the justices that the witness recantations were “simply not credible.”

“They have a strong motive to not testify in open court against a friend and fellow gang member,” Levin said.

He also said there was “powerful circumstantial evidence” that tied Ward to the getaway car, noting that a witness of the shooting saw the same make, model and color of a car his mother owned.

Levin did not touch on arguments about the validity of Ward’s confession during the oral arguments.

Ward made “several inculpatory statements” after being held for about 12 hours, the lower court opinion said.

While being questioned, Ward, around 1:40 a.m., said, “I ain’t got nothin’ else to say,” according to the opinion, among other instances of stating he would remain silent. Though detectives took breaks, they eventually continued questioning him.

Richards told the justices that the state’s witnesses were “all over the place” in their testimony, arguing that Ward’s confession was a crucial part of the state’s case.

“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back … it went directly into the state’s proof that he in fact was the shooter,” Richards said.

While hearing the oral arguments, the high court justices took the state to task about how it handled the appeal, noting that prosecutors changed their arguments as the appeal went on and waited until the last minute to raise some issues.

“What are we doing here?” Chief Justice Mary Jane Theis cut in just as Levin began his arguments. “It seems to be before we can discuss the heartbreaking case or the importance of the Fifth Amendment, we have to think about appellate practice and Supreme Court rules.”

Theis noted that the appeal was handled earlier in the process by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office before the AG’s office later stepped in.

“You have acknowledged that the position of the state has evolved significantly than what it was in the appellate court,” she said.

The justices took the case under advisement.