Murder Game, Redux
Wrestling with nihilism, death and another subpoena.
I met Monique Burston a few hours after three men killed each other on a West End street over the nothingest of nothings. Burston’s a couple of degrees of separation from the people who killed each other. She’s also the parent of a murdered child. A small group of people remained after the police tape came down on Evans Street two weeks ago.
I’ve been waiting to write about this, out of the vain hope that this catastrophe of Tarantino-esque violence was more than it appeared to be on first pass. Because, surely, three men would not get into a gun fight over who had the bigger, better gun and the larger stack of cash.
Not “you owe me money and pay up.” Not “you’re in a rival gang and I should shoot you before you shoot me.” Not “this is a robbery.”
According to witnesses and the Atlanta police, Jarvis Scott, 38, had been arguing with Derrion Johnson, 17, and Jakobi “Slim” Maddox, 20. Scott drew the two aside and began shooting at them. The two returned fire. Slim’s last act was to sit up, fatally wounded, and kill his killer.
According to the police report, Scott is the aggressor, and was killed lawfully by those he attacked, which must be a tremendous relief to Georgia’s gun lobby about the value of unlicensed carry, the wailing of three families, including a 1-year-old child left fatherless.
It’s a shooting that served no purpose beyond raising ATLScoop’s view count. Videos of the dead in the street circulated widely before police managed to control the scene.
“Somebody just died. They don’t care,” Burston said. “Like when they were out here fighting and people were just watching and recording. Did anyone try to run up to one of the guys and try to put a cloth on him and try to stop the bleeding, or would they just watch them bleed and record? Social media is the most unsociable thing. Social media ruins lives. These boys’ dead bodies were on social media. Imagine how a parent would feel; you don’t even know your child is dead, but the world is so small and you come across the post to say ‘that’s my child.’ That would mess a person up mentally.”
I’ve been to enough crime scenes to know that I’m probably not going to accomplish something meaningful there unless I’m willing to commit to a reporting project. But these West End killings are qualitatively different. The nihilism that lay beneath deaths like this was the talk on the street and deserves as much attention as was received by the murders of Katie Janness and her dog in Midtown or 77-year-old Ellen Bowles in Buckhead. We should reject the idea that any murder is a common act: there is nothing normal or common or predictable about three men killing each other in the street over nothing.
Two years ago, I picked a murder case more or less at random to report through in detail, to show how there are no inconsequential killings. That story was The Murder Game, an 8,000-word piece describing the life and death of Jamal “Pee Wee” Riley, a street tough in Capitol View whose murder ended up closing a last, infamous trap house in the rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood.
I described how a property owner had been trying to dislodge squatters in the house before the shooting. One of them was named in the story as Jumel Harris, a name that appeared in court records for evictions. The house on Beatie Street had become a menace, with Pee Wee Riley often in the center of the storm.
Around 10:30 on a Wednesday night at the end of September 2021, someone shot the 28-year-old dead in the living room. Pee Wee lay face up on the hardwood floor for five hours before an anonymous caller dialed 911 to tell cops to collect his dead body.
That’s where my story ended. That was not the end of the story.
Jumal Lewis — the Jumel Harris in my story — was arrested in Ohio in June 2022 and charged with murdering Riley. Lewis was taken to Fulton County jail and placed in its medical wing. Lewis suffers from a host of maladies, from a suppurating wound on his lower body that requires constant care and an ostomy, to being largely wheelchair bound with a bullet in his back.
A year ago, he called me. He had heard about the story. We began talking.
Lewis was my introduction to the horrors of the jail, to the inadequacies of its health services, to the abuse and violence. Men attacked Lewis in jail, biting his face, he said. He helped me speak to others.
We reached an understanding. We never spoke about the case. I wouldn’t compromise his defense by talking about what happened on a recorded line. But he had been deeply anxious about his trial being pushed back multiple times, and how his time in jail had negatively affected his health.
The Fulton County jail hasn’t allowed in-person visitation since the pandemic — aside from video calls, which is absurd and insulting to equate to seeing someone in the flesh — citing health concerns and short staffing. A prisoner on Rice Street might as well be held on the moon.
I expected Lewis’ trial to begin Monday last week. I found out that day that the case had been settled on essentially no notice in a plea deal Thursday. Riley’s mother had been notified, the prosecutors said, who described her as “very angry” about the outcome.
Details from the night of Riley’s death finally came out in court. Lewis — who was described erroneously as the property owner in court — had kicked Riley out of the house months before, but Riley kept returning, often to buy cigarettes. Lewis humored him, largely out of fear because Riley had a well-earned reputation for violence. The two had fought before, Lewis’ lawyer said in court.
According to the proffers made in court last month, one night in September, Riley returned while people were playing cards at the trap. Lewis and Riley began arguing. Someone slid Lewis a gun, which Lewis was not legally allowed to possess. As the argument progressed, Lewis pulled a gun and everyone else ran out of the house. Two of the people who had been there later spoke to police, identifying Lewis as Riley’s likely killer.
Had it gone to trial, Lewis would have argued self-defense and said that Riley was a bully and a gang member, and had been armed. Pee Wee was a known street fighter, had harmed Lewis before, and an empty holster was found on his body.
“I’m sorry that this even occurred,” Lewis said. “I feared for my life. I know this guy was coming to do harm to me. He already has. He was going to continue … I wish it had never happened,” he said.
Judge Robert McBurney noted the gamble Lewis would have taken with a trial, and how Lewis might live in fear for his life still, if Riley was indeed a gang member with vengeful friends.
“I think there is a sound legal defense in terms of self-defense,” McBurney said as he handed down the sentence. “I don’t know if the jury will go with it, but it is certainly much more viable than what I hear in a lot of cases. And that’s the risk you were facing, that maybe the jury doesn’t go with it, because it’s not black and white …”
The state asked for a sentence of 20 years, to serve seven. The defense asked for time served. McBurney gave Lewis ten years, to serve five, less the time he has been held in jail and eligibility for parole, Lewis will be out in 2027, sooner if paroled, after killing a man, assuming he survives his jail term.
I hope to speak to him again.
When I was called to testify in the Fulton County grand jury investigating Donald Trump and the election interference case in August, I waited around for four hours without testifying. As the night ended, I was asked what it would take for me to do this again. “Another subpoena,” I replied.
Thus, round three.
This morning, an investigator from the Fulton County District Attorney’s office called me to tell me I’m on the witness list, and that I would receive a subpoena to testify in the Trump prosecution. It doesn’t mean I’ll be called. The witness list is lengthy.
The investigator told me I was being subpoenaed specifically for the case involving Kenneth Cheseboro and Sidney Powell, because they had both filed speedy trial demands.
The date says October 23. I can safely assure everybody that I will not be testifying on that date, because they have to empanel a jury before anyone like me is going to be called to take the stand. I would bet real money that they can’t get a jury collected before Christmas. If the YSL case is any indication, it might be closer to Easter.
Mine is one of half a dozen or more subpoenas that went out today, the investigator told me. I recorded an episode of the VoteHer podcast with Mara Davis and Jen Jordan this afternoon. “If I got one, you’re next,” I told Jordan.
I haven’t talked to my lawyer yet about this. We’re still trying to figure out how to get journalists back into the YSL trial courtroom. Nor have I spoken yet to an editor for any of the many publications I write for.
I am contemplating the complexities here.
This morning, I sent a text message to Steve Sadow, asking him to come on the King Slime podcast to talk about the rapper Gunna’s life post-trial. (Sadow respectfully declined.)
Sadow also represents Trump, something I didn’t think mattered until just now.
My portfolio as a writer is increasingly expansive. “How I’d Fix Atlanta” is running an essay tomorrow about how I would change housing law in Georgia. In the process of writing it, I helped raise some money to keep a woman with a 12-year-old child from returning to homelessness. It is important to me to work to fix problems as I write, to avoid being someone exploiting pain for attention or profit, to avoid being the sort of person who would post video of dead bodies on Instagram.
This is “activist journalism,” in a sense. So, how the hell am I supposed to write about the Trump trial while on the hook as a witness? I walk through weird lands. I’ll hear advice.