Kenyatta Jefferson did not see the gun until it was inches away. The man shot him in the head. He fell to the ground, and landed at the feet of his friend, Willie Tucker. He remembers his blood dripping on Willie’s Nike sneakers, and someone pleading, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot.”
Then Willie ran. The man shot him in the shoulder. Derrick, Kenyatta’s older brother, heard the shots and came running back toward the store. “You shot Kenyatta!” he screamed.
The man said, “Here’s what you get for Kenyatta.”
He shot Derrick in the leg. Then he fled.
It was Friday night. The kids managed to drag Kenyatta to the curb on Kercheval — Derrick, who was bleeding, and Willie, who was bleeding, and Raymond Brown and Anthony Hall, together, just as they once had played together on their high school team. They tried to flag a car or a bus. Kenyatta was barely conscious. Already his right side was limp and his speech was gone.
Willie yelled “C’mon, Derrick!”
Derrick yelled, “No, we gotta get Kenyatta to a hospital.”
When the police came, there was more yelling, and soon kids from the neighborhood had gathered around the variety store, pointing at the blood. The owner grabbed a mop. Lights were flashing. Sirens sounded. Back at Virginia Union, where Kenyatta played football, they had an expression for toughness.
“You gotta cross the desert to be a Panther.” Now, riding in the police car, Derrick held Kenyatta in his arms, the life oozing from his brother’s skull, and whispered, “You crossed the desert, Kenyatta. Hang on. Please hang on.”
This is a story about 25 cents worth of violence and we tell it here because this has to stop, the guns, the anger, the blood of children. This weekend, college football draws to close, players peel off their helmets, flushed with accomplishment — and Kenyatta Jefferson, who represents the most important currency in the city of Detroit, a poor kid with a chance to make it, is a cripple who must teach himself to walk. You can believe his account of Friday, May 20, or you can believe the account of the man who fired the bullets, a drifter named John Shelton, who claimed he was threatened by five college athletes because they were big and talking trash when they entered Honey Baby’s variety store on Kercheval that night.
Kenyatta, who was only 18 when he took the bullet, has no doubts. Only questions. “Why?” he says, his words still slow and slurred. “Every day I ask myself that. Why did he have to shoot us? What did we do?”
He sighs. He is sitting next to his mother in the house on East Outer Drive, dressed in an Adidas T-shirt and blue jeans. His face is still smooth and handsome, but his body has changed. He is 6-feet-3, and the definition is there in his arms and shoulders, yet it has softened, the muscles melting with neglect. His right arm is stiff and he walks with a limp and there is a surgical scar that begins on his forehead and traces around his skull.
The night of the shooting, doctors said he would never walk or talk again
— if he made it through the night. They operated for six hours and still could not remove all of the bullet. A fragment remains, lodged in his brain tissue, a forget-me-not of the city where he lives.
How could it happen? Why did it happen? “We had all come home from college and we were going downtown to the festival,” he says. “We stopped in Honey Baby’s for some candy. We’ve been going there since we were kids. I ordered five taffies, Laffy Taffy. They cost five cents a piece. The guy behind the counter was a skinny man, with jeri-curls, and a brown sweater. I never seen him before. He acted like ‘Why did you guys have to come in here now?’ Like he was mad to even be there. I gave him the quarter. He gave me the taffies.
“After that, Willie ordered 75 Big Blow candies. A penny a piece. Then the guy said, ‘Wait a minute. You didn’t pay me for the taffies.’ And I said, ‘I had to pay you for the taffies or you wouldn’t have given them to me.’ He said, ‘Aww, bleep that. You gonna pay me for those taffies.’ “
“He went back to ask Honey Baby, the lady who owns the store. She knows us since we were kids. But she was behind the ice cream freezer so she couldn’t see. She said, ‘Let ’em go. It ain’t worth it.’ We were gonna give him another quarter, but he said, ‘Naw, forget it.’ So we went out of the store.
“I saw him walking to the door behind the counter but I didn’t pay no attention. Then I looked to my left and I saw his arm sticking out the door and the gun in his hand. I never seen a gun that close. I tried to duck. . . .
He pauses. He swallows.
“And then he shot you?”
“Yes,” he says flatly.
“For 25 cents?”
“For 25 cents.”
Back at Martin Luther King High, Jefferson had been a star linebacker and running back, one of those natural football players who liked to hit and didn’t care where or when. In a game that sent his school to the city championship, Jefferson was everywhere — inside linebacker, outside linebacker, fullback. “I remember it was pouring rain and we were covered with mud,” says his former coach, Jim Reynolds. “But he was on the field almost the entire game, making key plays. We won in overtime.”
Jefferson made first-team All-City. He was recruited by several major colleges, including Clemson and Alabama. But his grades were not good and he wound up at Virginia Union (where he started last year as linebacker). Still. An athlete on scholarship. Not bad for a kid from the east side. “When I played football,” he says, “I was on top of the world.”
Today, he is merely a victim of it. The bullet left him paralyzed on his right side, and although he has come much further than doctors expected, he still limps down the steps, he still shakes hands with the left. He has been in rehab for months now. Tedious exercise. Wiggling fingers. Bending arms.
“If I concentrate on walking, then I can walk normal, but I have to think,
‘One leg, then the other.’ They say I’m like a baby that has to learn everything over again.”
He dreams of running, of tackling, of somehow returning to football. But the days are long now because Derrick, Willie, Raymond and Anthony are all back at college, playing sports. So he spends a lot of time with his mother, or with his girlfriend, Scherriel Neeley. You see him limp, so young, so strong, and you know this is not the way it is supposed to be.
“Look,” he says, “I’ll show you something.” He leans over, grabs a shoelace with his good hand, and weaves it slowly in a loop. It takes 40 seconds, maybe longer.
“There,” he says. “I taught myself.”
Kenyatta Jefferson has just tied his shoe.
The trial took just two days. The defense counselor, Arthur Bowman Jr., argued that his client, John Shelton, 41, had acted in self-defense. His story was markedly different from that of the five teenagers. Although the counter in Honey Baby’s is enveloped by bullet-proof glass, Shelton claimed he was drawn out to the middle of the store, and that Derrick was pushing on him and threatening him and he pulled the gun and meant to shoot Derrick but fell backward and accidently shot Kenyatta, then shot the others because he feared retaliation.
“It was my job to put the jury in the shoes of my client,” Bowman said last week. Meaning: fear. What would you think, he suggested, if five black kids of large height and weight came into your store talking loudly and wearing track suits and sneakers — the popular costume of drug dealers these days? Never mind that these kids had been on their way from the gym. Never mind that they had no criminal records. Never mind that they had been coming to this store for years and had never tried to rob it, to damage it, or to shoplift merchandise. Never mind that none of them had a weapon.
Under Michigan law, there can be no appeal.
Never mind that Shelton, a drifterwho rode his bicycle to the store and lived in a single room in Honey Baby’s house and wasn’t even an employe but rather a guy who hung around and occasionally helped out for $3.50 an hour and admitted later that he was having a “bad day,” was carrying a gun in his waistband that no one knew about.
Fear. We are talking about fear — and supply exceeds demand in Detroit. So Bowman argued that fear and self- protection motivated the trigger finger of John Shelton.
And all Kenyatta Jefferson could do was listen. At times he had to leave the courtroom, limping out, because the proceedings upset him so much. His own attorney, provided by the court, had only been given the case that day. The regular prosecutor — whom the Jeffersons had been talking to — left town suddenly on business. According to Doris Jefferson, Kenyatta’s mother, the family had “five minutes with the new man” before the trial began. This is how justice works for the poor.
“He didn’t even have time to see what kind of kids my kids were. This other lawyer is making them out like they’re gangsters or crack dealers. These are college athletes. They are good kids. They were making their way out of the ghetto. But he never talked about that.”
The jurors did not take long. At the end of the second day, the 12 of them, mostly older people, two white, the rest black, found John Shelton guilty of assault on Willie Tucker and Derrick Jefferson.
For the shooting of Kenyatta Jefferson, they found Shelton not guilty.
“NO! NO! NO! ” screamed Doris Jefferson, when the verdict was announced.
“It can’t be! He shot my son! It can’t be!”
There is no appeal.
Last week, Judge Michael Talbot, who sentenced Shelton to the strictest penalty for the assault charge — six to 10 years in prison, versus 20 or more were he convicted on intent to murder — was asked to explain the jury’s decision.
“The lawyer painted a picture of ‘You know how Detroit is,’ ” he said. “He played on the fear. And I think folks just have such experiences with young men in this city that the good ones get tarred with the same brush as the bad ones. . . . My heart went out to that young man (Kenyatta). What bothers me most is that (Shelton) showed no remorse. None. I’m sure if you asked him today, he’d say he did the right thing. How many more people are out there like this? That’s what scares me.”
“What would you have ruled?” he was asked.
“Me? I would have found him guilty of intent to murder,” he said. “But it was the jury’s decision.”
Twenty-five cents worth of violence.
Twenty-five cents worth of justice.
And here is where the story ends. Two days before Thanksgiving. People are racing through supermarkets, booking plane reservations, gearing up for the holiday. Kenyatta Jefferson, for the first time since that night in May, pulls on the rotted block door and steps inside Honey Baby’s.
The floor is covered with cardboard boxes. Windows are held together with tape. The candy jars sit behind bullet-proof glass, one filled with Laffy Taffy, five cents a piece. “He shot me right here,” Kenyatta begins, ignoring the customers, his voice flat. “And I fell there, and he shot Willie there . .
Honey Baby, the thin, chain-smoking 59 year-old owner (whose real name is LueEthel Wright) walks over without a hello and joins the conversation. She says she didn’t know John Shelton had a gun.
“Earlier that day, he said he didn’t want to be here. I said, ‘Fine, then. Go on home.’ But he stayed. Then I heard those shots. . . . I ain’t seen John Shelton since. He still got some stuff at my house. Old stuff. Junk. His bicycle.”
“Do you believe the kids were trying to rob the store and hurt him?” she is asked.
“They never ripped me off for nothing. They been comin’ here for years. .
. . No. I don’t believe they did nothing wrong.”
Kenyatta Jefferson stares at her blankly. There is no sense of relief or satisfaction. He waits until she’s finished talking, then limps outside to show a visitor the curb where he lay until the police came.
In the suburbs, this story might mobilize a community. On the national sports scene, it would be mourned as a tragedy