CHICAGO —A Cook County judge imposed a sentence of 84 years in prison for the convicted gunman in the slaying of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, a death nearly six years ago that put a national spotlight on Chicago’s gun violence.
The sentence by Judge Nicholas Ford came after Micheail Ward, 24, protested his innocence during his first public comments. In his rambling remarks, he took prosecutors and police to task for what he saw as a failure to find the real killer.
“I am upset that I’m the one that’s going down for a murder that I didn’t commit,” Ward said. “All y’all had to do was take time to investigate it. … Y’all would have seen what happened. (Hadiya’s mother) would know who killed her daughter for real. She would know the whole situation.”
But Ford, a former county prosecutor, said it was Ward’s own words —both at his sentencing Monday and in a videotaped statement to police after his 2013 arrest —that sealed his fate.
“What you have noticed in his remarks was a complete absence of empathy,” said Ford, standing at the bench as he delivered his remarks often in a raised voice.
But Ward told what really happened in his confession to police, the judge said.
“No rational person could look at the admission he made to police and not understand he was being truthful when he told them what he had done,” Ford said.
The emotional two-hour hearing started in dramatic fashion as Hadiya’s mother took the witness stand to call for her daughter’s killer to be given the maximum sentence of life in prison.
“The absolute max,” said Cleopatra Cowley, her voice deliberate and clear as she read a victim-impact statement into the record. “Hadiya is serving a death sentence … and the whole family is doing life as a result of her death.”
Hadiya’s younger brother, Nathaniel Pendleton Jr., who also briefly testified Monday in the packed courtroom at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, said he has been filled with self-loathing for the nearly six years since his sister’s killing since he could not come to her aid.
“I still to this day have not been able to forgive myself, and sometimes I don’t think I ever will,” said Pendleton, who was not with his sister at the time of the killing.
While Ward wasn’t sentenced to the maximum possible, he still effectively was given a life sentence. Even with credit for time already served and any likely credit for good conduct, he must serve at least an additional 76 years in prison —if he survives that long. He would be about 100.
Ward faced a minimum sentence of 51 years in prison, according to a spokeswoman for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.
After a lengthy and emotional trial, a nine-man, three-woman jury convicted Ward on one count of first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated battery. Hadiya was shot in the back, and two other students were wounded.
Ward’s co-defendant, Kenneth Williams, the getaway driver, was also convicted of murder in August by a separate jury. No date has been set for his sentencing.
An ambitious teenager with a radiant smile, Hadiya was another innocent caught in the crosshairs of gang gunfire, killed by a bullet as she celebrated an unseasonably warm afternoon in January 2013 with her classmates in the South Side’s Harsh Park after final exams.
The slaying struck the city hard because just eight days earlier the King College Prep High School honors student and majorette had performed at the second inauguration festivities of the president who called Chicago home. The shooting took place about a mile from President Barack Obama’s Kenwood neighborhood home.
The guilty verdicts capped more than five years of investigation and legal proceedings, ending a sad saga that became emblematic of Chicago’s street and gang violence.
Prosecutors said Ward fired into Harsh Park, a small play lot in the North Kenwood neighborhood, targeting members of a rival gang who regularly hung out there.
It was likely Ward’s own words in a video-recorded confession that ended up as the key evidence. Jurors viewed about three hours of the interrogation that played out over nearly a day in a cramped, windowless room.
Ward told detectives he carried out the shooting under pressure from Williams, 20 at the time. Both were members of a small gang faction called SUWU who went to the park to try to retaliate against the rival 4-6 Terror gang. Months earlier, Williams himself had been wounded in a shooting and a close friend of Ward’s had been killed in separate attacks.
The defense contended detectives manipulated Ward into making a false statement. His lawyers also tried to turn the confession on its head, telling jurors it was, in fact, proof of Ward’s innocence since he was wrong about key facts about the shooting.
Shortly after the shooting, several students said Ward looked similar to the gunman —though none at the time said they were sure it was him. But last week, one of the students, Stephen Abdul, took the stand at trial more than five years later and said he was 100 percent sure that it was Ward who pulled the trigger.
Two fellow reputed SUWU members told grand jurors in 2013 that Williams confessed to them shortly after the shooting, saying he and Ward had just done a “drill” —slang for a shooting. At the trial, though, both walked back their previous testimony, claiming they didn’t remember.
After Monday’s sentencing, Cowley, Hadiya’s mother, told reporters that she considered the sentence fair and said that it provided a measure of peace after all the years of legal wrangling.
“It’s been a lot of back and forth … dealing with the uncertainties of what the trial could have been and the sentencing, so now there’s a little bit of closure to that part,” she said.
Ward plans to appeal the conviction, so Hadiya’s family said they would continue to keep a close eye on the case.
“I said from Day One we’re going all the way through, and I need to see this all the way through,” said Hadiya’s father, Nathaniel Pendleton Sr. “People like this need to be off the street, so I’m happy right now. But it’s not over.”