When Jay’den Franklin-Williams rolled her wheelchair up to the witness stand in Baltimore Circuit Court last month, she later said, she hadn’t decided what she would say about the young man she previously accused of shooting her and the woman she told police had yelled out “Shoot.”
More than two years had gone by since a dispute from school devolved into a nighttime brawl where Williams was shot in the back. The bullet damaged her spine and, at age 13, she was partially paralyzed: unable to use her legs, but able to use her arms and hands.
She considers the defendants in the case, Antwan Newton, 22, and Lasheena Stewart, 39, her “brother” and “mother,” she told The Baltimore Sun after the trial. Stewart was like the neighborhood mom in East Baltimore Midway; Newton was a boy she took in years ago. Williams grew up with Stewart’s children and Newton, playing and bickering like siblings.
Now, in the small downtown courtroom, their fate hinged on her word — all that connected the pair to the charges of conspiracy to commit murder, attempted murder, assault and firearms violations.
A long, wooden table separated them in court.
Williams said later that she made eye contact with both defendants. She told The Sun she was afraid, yet sympathetic for them: She began to think of all the people who rely on Stewart and Newton.
“I can’t take a mother away from a person ... In my eyes, she’s still a mother. Her kids still need her. She still needs to help them grow up,” Williams told The Sun, recalling what flashed through her mind as she prepared to testify. “His brothers need him ... I wouldn’t want to take a father figure away from them.”
During her testimony on July 12 and 13, Williams said she never saw Newton the night of her shooting and couldn’t remember identifying him as the shooter from a photo lineup police showed her while she was in the hospital, intubated and sedated. And even though she previously told police she heard Stewart tell Newton to “shoot,” she testified that a cousin had told her what was said.
In separate interviews with The Sun, Williams offered conflicting accounts about her recollection of the shooting. But her perspective provides a rare look at what a victim of gun violence was thinking as she recanted her earlier allegations to police against the pair. Williams’ spoke to a reporter at home with her mother’s permission and they agreed to the use of her name. Williams also said it was OK to take her photo, as long as it didn’t show her face.
The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office’s data dashboard shows witnesses recanted in about 3% of the cases it dropped or indefinitely postponed from 2019 through the beginning of July.
Other times a witness walks back their statement to police on the stand, and prosecutors are left to try to save weak cases without the key testimony. That’s what happened in Williams’ case. When she recanted, she undercut the state’s case against Newton and Stewart.
Both were acquitted, and deny any role in the shooting.
Williams is 15 now, and she’s still a paraplegic. No one has been held accountable for pulling the trigger.
In the fall of 2019, Williams was caught up in name-calling with another middle school girl, she told the jury. Stewart’s daughter, who Williams described at the trial as her “ex-best friend,” intervened and the dispute between those two spiraled out of control.
According to her testimony, older family members got involved. On Nov. 22, 2019, Williams’ friends and relatives drove three cars to Stewart’s house after dark.
Police later found a knife, mace and a stick studded with nails in the car Williams was in. The windows of Stewart’s house were busted out.
Williams testified she ran back to the car after seeing a gun. She told the jury she was on a friend’s lap in the back seat when she realized she’d been shot because she felt like she was floating.
Weeks went by as Williams underwent surgeries. Baltimore police detective Sgt. Valentine Nagovich Jr. visited her Dec. 19, 2020, for an interview recorded on his body-worn camera.
That footage was played in court: Williams, who was on a breathing tube, nodded or shook her head to yes-or-no questions. If the question was more complex, she wrote her answer on paper.
Another detective presented a photo array, the video showed. Newton’s photo was one of six shown to Williams; she identified three of the people as being there on the night of the shooting.
“He is Antwan. He is the person who shot me,” Williams wrote under Newton’s photo.
At trial, Williams denied writing those words under Newton’s photo — the penmanship was messy, she told the jury, while hers is neat.
With Williams testifying she never heard Newton say “Shoot,” the basis for the conspiracy charge, retired Judge John Addison Howard found there was insufficient evidence to support any of the charges against Stewart. He dismissed the case against her.
Howard also tossed Newton’s most serious charges, but left it up to the jury to decide if Newton was guilty of attempted second-degree murder and the other lesser offenses.
The state’s case was falling apart fast. But Maryland court rules allow lawyers to introduce a witness’s prior recorded statement as evidence if they recant. Assistant State’s Attorney Paul Crowley played the video of William’s hospital bed interview.
The teen spent much of the interview with Nagovich on her phone, and he seemed frustrated by her lack of attention. Nagovich testified Williams was looking at information about her shooting on the Instagram page @murder_ink_bmore while he talked to her.
At one point during the interview, the video showed, she struggled with the ventilator and a nurse helped her breathe by applying suction.
Crowley asked Williams about a later call with him, Nagovich and her mother. Williams said she only remembered one thing about the conversation.
“I was scared of trial,” she testified.
In his closing argument, Crowley asked jurors to believe the statement Williams made at the hospital.
“When she was in a safe environment with a nurse and her grandmother in the hospital, she said, ‘This is the man who shot me,’” Crowley said. “When she gave the statement that she didn’t know who shot her, she was sitting 6 feet away from [Newton].”
Newton’s attorney, Chris Purpura, told the jury that Williams previously wrote that an “Antwan” with a different last name shot her. He said detectives did not search Newton’s phone or his house. They neglected to interview several potential witnesses or follow up on an anonymous tip about another shooter. And Newton had an alibi: His girlfriend testified he was home with her.
“In this attempted murder prosecution, the only evidence was three statements from Jay’den Franklin-Williams, and none of them can be true,” Purpura said.
The jury deliberated for about 30 minutes before finding Newton not guilty on all counts.
One juror, Keyon Worrell, told The Sun the state did not provide enough evidence. He said the jury re-watched Williams’ hospital interview, but believed medication may have influenced her thinking.
“Ultimately, we chose what she said on the stand,” Worrell said.
Stewart was elated to be cleared of the charges, but overwhelmed by the task of rebuilding her life.
She told The Sun that she lost her job as a dietary aide at a nursing home after being charged. Meanwhile, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City terminated her lease, leaving Stewart and her children to bounce between relatives’ homes as her case crept through the courts. Her older sister quit work to help shop for groceries and take the children to doctors’ appointments while Stewart was home on an ankle monitor. Stewart said she now takes medications for anxiety and depression.
“It traumatized me,” she said in an interview. “I’m not the same.”
The mother of three said she prided herself on being the neighborhood mom. Newton and, later, Williams were among the children she welcomed into her home over the years. Her connection to the girl made the charges more hurtful.
“I would never hurt her. I would never ask anyone to hurt her, or any other child,” Stewart said. “I want my life back. It’s not fair.”
She envisions a career as a traveling phlebotomist and a home outside of the city, where she no longer feels safe.
Stewart and Newton’s sister and godmother said the allegations that Stewart and Newton were involved in the shooting were a lie.
In a statement, spokeswoman Zy Richardson of the office of the Baltimore state’s attorney, defended the decision to prosecute Newton and Stewart.
“Our prosecutors have an obligation to fight relentlessly for any 15-year-old teenager shot and paralyzed from the waist down, who on more than one occasion identifies her shooter,” Richardson said. “The fact that this fearful, young victim subsequently recanted her identification on the stand illustrates the challenges we face in Baltimore daily in our pursuit of justice in the home of witness intimidation.”
Williams said during interviews in the weeks after trial that several people asked her not to testify, though none of them threatened her. She didn’t want to say who they were.
Newton is still in jail. That’s because the shooting charges triggered a violation of probation in an attempted drug distribution case — his only other criminal case — where he got probation before judgment. He has to go before the district court judge who gave him probation before he can be released.
He has struggled behind bars, his family said after he was acquitted in Williams’ shooting. He contracted COVID-19 twice, and had to be vigilant to avoid inmate altercations. Jahira Newton said she had to convince her younger brother not to lose hope.
She described him as a caring brother who enjoyed playing basketball and watching movies. The then-19-year-old was working at a bakery when he was arrested, she said. When he is released, he hopes to find another job and earn his GED diploma.
“I prayed every day for my brother to be covered in there, for the victim, her strength, her emotions in her situation that she’s got to deal with for the rest of her life,” Jahira Newton said. “I feel bad for her.”
After the shooting, Williams had to be woken up in the hospital for her family to break the news: Doctors had determined she was partially paralyzed, and they didn’t know if she’d walk again.
She cried for three hours. “After that, I got used to it,” Williams told The Sun.
Williams spent a month at the hospital and two more rehabilitating at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. Small milestones marked progress: Nurses removed the breathing tube, then the IVs.
“And the hole in my back got smaller,” she said nonchalantly of her gunshot wound.
While she was confident when she spoke about recovering, she barely lifted her eyes from her iPhone as she discussed what she knew about the shooting or how the injury upended her life.
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The pain she lives with slipped out in short answers. When Williams feels sad, she said, she writes in her diary. Then, she sleeps. She spends most of the day snoozing it away.
She did not explain why her story about the shooting changed — at trial and again during conversations with a reporter. In her first interview with The Sun, Williams said she couldn’t remember who shot her. A week later, she offered a different response: “I forgive, but I don’t forget.”
Her mother said she sometimes deflects when things are difficult to discuss. Maybe it’s easier not to remember. Maybe it’s better to focus on other things.
Aspirations to bring up her grades have replaced hopes of playing basketball. She wants to make A’s because she said she dreams of going to college in Boston and becoming a pediatrician.
In the meantime, it’s school, the friends she keeps up with on the phone, and physical therapy. She goes to Kennedy Krieger twice a week to work on straightening her legs. She simulates walking with the help of a machine there.
As Williams reached down to put shoes on during an interview, her feet began to tremble.
“That’s how I know I’m walking again — my nerves,” she said.