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Halim Flowers didn’t pull the trigger. But a jury convicted the 5’1”, 100-pound crack dealer of murder, and a judge ultimately condemned him to spend at least the next 30 years, and likely the rest of his life, in prison. He was 16 at the time of the crime.
The day after Christmas in 1996, high on marijuana and PCP and drunk on cheap bubbly, Flowers knocked on the door of unit D-11 in the Azeeze Bates apartment complex on 16th Street NE. He held a silver pistol in his hand.
The three men inside had been smoking crack and drinking beer. One of them, Elvern Cooper, 51, handed over about $20 when Flowers shoved the weapon in his face, according to the original arrest affidavit.
As Flowers turned to leave, the men grabbed him and tried to wrestle the money and the pistol from his grasp. The gun went off, and a bullet lodged in the kitchen wall, court records say. No one was hit. Flowers fled with the gun but without the money.
According to prosecutors’ version of the story, Flowers’ friend, Momolu Stewart, waited outside, and when Flowers came back empty handed, the boys returned to the apartment, scaled the back deck, and came in through the sliding glass door. Cooper ran into a bedroom, prosecutors believe, and Flowers told the other men to “get back.” Then, prosecutors allege, Stewart fired three shots into the closed bedroom door, striking Cooper, who died several days later.
Flowers, in an interview and in his self-published autobiography, says he never returned to the apartment with his friend. He doesn’t specifically name Stewart.
Flowers was convicted in 1998 of felony murder, a legal rule that says anyone involved in a felony crime that results in a death can be held responsible for that death.
Prosecutors ultimately dropped the charges against Stewart in that incident, but he could still be prosecuted today in Cooper’s death. Stewart was later convicted, along with another of their friends, Kareem McCraney, of killing Mark Rosebure just six days later and 400 feet away from the Azeeze Bates apartments. Stewart was 16 and McCraney was 17 when they fatally shot Rosebure, who had previously threatened to kill McCraney and held a gun to his mother’s head, according to court records.
The three of them—Flowers, McCraney, and Stewart—grew up together in Northeast D.C. in the 1980s and ’90s. They were among the scores of juveniles who committed crimes during the District’s most notoriously violent time period. Guns and crack tore families apart and ravaged entire communities.
For eight of the years between 1988 and 1999, D.C.’s murder rate topped all other major American cities, and the District became known as the murder capital of the United States. In 1991, 482 people were killed here.
For their role in the carnage, Flowers, McCraney, and Stewart were sentenced as teenagers to spend the better parts of their lives in prison. Each of them charged as adults at the discretion of federal prosecutors and convicted of murder and other violent crimes, they received decades-long mandatory minimum sentences.
Now the D.C. Council is rethinking the tough-on-crime policies that put and kept them in prison. McCraney was the first person released under the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA), which took effect in 2017, after serving 21 years. Flowers was released in March after serving 22. And earlier this week, Stewart came home after serving 23 years.
Judge Robert Salerno released Stewart despite the fact that he filed a false affidavit putting forth a fabricated alibi in 2012. “The statute, in my view, requires me to find fundamental change, not perfection,” Salerno said from the bench at Stewart’s resentencing.
Flowers, McCraney, and Stewart are three of the 19 people—all of them black men—released under the IRAA. Their release represents a shift in thinking around criminal sentencing. While the U.S. Attorney, Jessie Liu, stands in ardent opposition, the D.C. Council is moving toward an approach that weighs rehabilitation over punishment.
The IRAA allows people who committed violent crimes before they turned 18 to ask a judge for a reduced sentence, as long as they’ve served at least 15 years. A D.C. Council bill introduced in February, the Second Look Amendment Act, would expand the law to include people who committed crimes before their 25th birthdays. An estimated 70 people have asked for a new sentence, and the bill could expand the number of eligible offenders to more than 500, the USAO believes.
This legislation comes as so-called “second look laws” are gaining momentum across the country and follow the precedent set by multiple U.S. Supreme Court rulings curtailing harsh sentences for juveniles. The high court’s decisions rely on a growing body of research showing brain development continues into a person’s mid-20s.
The Model Penal Code, a project of the American Law Institute that provides a template for criminal justice policy makers, suggests that offenders of all ages receive a second look after serving 15 years in prison. The latest version, revised in 2017, explains that America relies on the heavy use of lengthy prison sentences more than any other Western democracy. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, despite two decades of falling crime rates.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Ronna Beck agrees that long sentences deserve another look.
“I wish there were an opportunity for judges to be able to review everyone’s sentence after a significant period of time,” Beck said during Flowers’ resentencing. “Many people will not qualify for the sentence reduction that you did, but I think that it would be beneficial to our system to be able to have a review like this so that when people have really transformed their lives, as you seem to have done, that there was an opportunity to adjust a sentence that was imposed many, many decades earlier.”
A majority of the D.C. Council supports the Second Look Amendment Act—as does Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration and Attorney General Karl Racine. But Liu, the Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney, is not a fan.
Her office has encountered few IRAA petitions that it likes. Since the original law took effect in 2017, federal prosecutors, who have jurisdiction over felony crimes in D.C., have opposed nearly every request for resentencing.
They’ve argued that offenders are too dangerous to be released, their crimes are too heinous, they haven’t accepted responsibility for their crimes, their release undermines “truth in sentencing,” and that, although prison records showing a dedication to education are admirable, they are to be expected.
At a recent hearing for Mustafa Zulu, a man who spent 20 years in solitary confinement starting when he was 20, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jocelyn Bond argued that Zulu’s “very very impressive” list of educational courses and accomplishments does not outweigh his sins in and out of prison.
“Education is not a panacea for violence,” Bond said. “It does not fix someone’s character … It doesn’t change someone’s underlying violent character.”
In September, as part of its campaign opposing the Second Look Amendment Act, the U.S. Attorney’s Office hosted a meeting for the public and a group of advisory neighborhood commissioners. Liu stood against the wall while representatives from her office made their case against the bill, emphasizing the impact on victims and concerns that the Council is expanding the law too quickly without sufficient evidence that those released won’t commit new crimes.
During the meeting, John Hill, a deputy chief and career prosecutor, cited data from the Bureau of Prisons showing a recidivism rate of about 35 percent among people released from 2009 to 2015 who would be eligible under the Second Look Amendment Act. Hill ignored City Paper’s request for the underlying data, and the USAO has refused to release it. Hill also presented incorrect data on D.C.’s incarceration rate, which the office later corrected in a tweet.
Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a senior researcher for The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes criminal justice reform, points out that the BOP’s definition of recidivism includes technical parole violations for missing a meeting or smoking weed.
“A recidivism measure that separates these factors from new offenses gives people a better sense of public safety risk,” Ghandnoosh says.
Sarah McClellan, chief of the USAO’s victim witness assistance unit, explained at the September meeting that the new law reactivates trauma for victims and their families, many of whom have spoken passionately in opposition to offenders’ release.
At least two advisory neighborhood commissioners have published editorials opposing the second look bill, including Darrell Gaston, whose 15-year-old godson, Gerald Watson, was gunned down earlier this year. Malik Holston, 16, is charged with first-degree murder in Watson’s death.
Denise Krepp, the ANC for 6B10, believes that the law and the proposed amendment ignore victims of sexual assault. According to the USAO, at least two of the cases granted a new sentence under the IRAA involve rape. In an August opinion piece in the Washington Post, Krepp wrote that violent and sexual offenders should serve their full sentences. “We owe that to victims,” she wrote.
Bridgette Stumpf, executive director for the Network for Victim Recovery of DC, emphasizes that victimhood is not as monolithic as prosecutors have suggested in this debate. Her organization has not taken a stance on the Second Look Amendment Act for just that reason.
“We’re focused on restoration and the root causes of crime,” she tells City Paper. “Our job is to empower individual voices. So if these reform opportunities present themselves, we advocate for those individual voices to be heard. I know a handful of survivors who testified in support and some against.”
In at least one case, that support came from the prosecutor’s own witness.
Antoine Budd suffered a gunshot wound to the leg during the deadly O Street Market shooting in 1994. Kevin McCrimmon was sentenced to a total of 91 years to life for his role in plotting the shooting, though he was not actually present. Duwan A’Vant, 15, was killed during the incident. His mother testified against McCrimmon’s release and believes he should serve 20 more years in prison, according to court records.
Budd tells City Paper that McCrimmon, who was 17 at the time, was a good kid at heart who fell into a life of selling drugs. He says McCrimmon was bullied, robbed, beaten, and shot at by others in the neighborhood.
“He had older people from his neighborhood saying, ‘You gotta do something about it or it’s gonna keep happening, and they’re gonna wind up killing you,’” Budd says. “He came up in the Rayful Edmond neighborhood, and he was one of the unfortunate young people who fell into that.”
In court, Budd offered to help McCrimmon get a job at the auto body shop where he works, and “personally committed to provide transportation to the shop should Mr. McCrimmon need it,” according to the judge’s order.
“Judge, let him out,” Budd said in court.
At the same time the USAO is opposing early release for so many young men and boys who were locked away during D.C.’s crack epidemic, that same office is pushing for a reduced sentence for one of the most notorious kingpins of that era.
Rayful Edmond was convicted in 1989 and condemned to die in prison for “running one of our city’s largest and most destructive narcotics distribution operations,” Liu’s office wrote in its request for a sentence reduction. He ran the operation out of his grandmother’s rowhouse in Northeast, about two miles from where Flowers, Stewart, and McCraney grew up.
Even in prison, Edmond continued his operation and was sentenced to another 30 years. Then he started talking, and after nearly three decades behind bars, prosecutors say, Edmond’s information and courtroom testimony have helped authorities investigate and convict other drug traffickers. The USAO has asked the judge to reduce his sentence to 40 years, though it’s unclear whether he’ll be immediately released if a judge grants the request. Through a spokesperson, Liu declined a request for an interview.
U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan appointed D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine to gather community input on Edmond’s possible release. Racine’s office heard from more than 500 D.C. residents, who are split almost exactly in half: 239 people support a sentence reduction, and 243 oppose it. Twenty-eight didn’t take a stance.
But the irony of the USAO’s request in Edmond’s case is not lost on McCraney and Flowers. Flowers says prosecutors offered him a plea deal in exchange for his testimony against Stewart. Had he agreed, he could have been released in a year, he says.
In Flowers’ and McCraney’s views, federal prosecutors’ opposition to IRAA petitions and their push for Edmond’s release reveal a transactional justice system where information trumps fairness.
“It wasn’t about the public safety,” Flowers says of the offer in his own case. “I could have still went back to society and committed violent crimes. It was about cooperation.”
But the two disagree over whether Edmond should be released.
“I don’t support him cooperating with the government, but still I think enough is enough,” Flowers says.
McCraney can’t get over the contradiction.
“If it ain’t gonna open the door for all these other people that should have the opportunity to show they ready for release, then I ain’t supporting nothing like that,” he says. “Fuck him. That’s how I feel about it.”
There’s a tiny grass island where Tennessee Avenue NE meets 15th Street NE. Cars roll past, and people amble down the sidewalk behind strollers and dogs. They pay no mind to the stone hidden under an overgrown shrub.
It doesn’t mark a grave but memorializes the deaths of three boys: Jerome “Chip” Belle, 17, LeRon A. Perkins, 14, and Steven Miller, 15. Flowers and McCraney knew them all. Chip’s death in 1996 hit them especially hard.
“After that, I could tell Halim was different,” his mother, Darlene Flowers, wrote in a letter to Judge Beck about the day Chip was killed. “It got so bad between us that I kicked Halim out of the house. He was out of control and I felt like there was nothing I could do to prevent him from becoming another one of the dead or incarcerated kids from our community. But I never lost hope for Halim.”
As a kid growing up in Northeast D.C., drugs and murder were a given for Flowers and his crew.
On a recent walk through his old neighborhood, Flowers points to the corners where “guys used to hang out” selling drugs, to the homes where his old girlfriends used to live, to the streets where his friends were gunned down, and to the house on the corner that used to be a store with an arcade.
As he does, school children walk past on their way to the newly renovated Maury Elementary School.
In his mother’s telling, Flowers “devoured” books as a young kid. She recalled driving him to libraries around the District after he’d read all the books for his age, and some above, at their neighborhood branch. He took the SAT at 11 years old, she wrote, and participated in programs for academically gifted kids.
She also told Beck about the gunshot that rang out at Flowers’ junior high school graduation as he walked across the stage, and of the time when Flowers’ 10-year-old cousin was struck by a stray bullet while playing outside. But perhaps the most significant event in Flowers’ childhood was his father’s descent into crack addiction, Darlene Flowers wrote.
For as long as she knew Jesse Flowers, he sold weed to make money, Darlene Flowers explained in her letter. Still, Jesse Flowers played a positive role in his son’s early life—substitute teaching at his school, teaching him to box, and taking him to the mosque.
“Jesse was one of the very few father figures in our community,” Darlene Flowers wrote. “Even from a young age, this was such a great source of pride for Halim that his father stayed, loved him, and took care of him.”
When Flowers was about 7, his dad’s addiction took hold. Jesse Flowers disappeared for months. When he would return, he’d steal from the family—dishes, clothes, the VCR—to feed his addiction. Flowers recalls times when his father would stand outside his window and beg his son to let him in the house.
Jesse Flowers left town a few months before his son’s 11th birthday. That’s when Flowers started hanging around older guys. He stopped going to school. He started drinking and smoking. At 13, he says, he bought a crack rock for the first time, sold it, and bought some more.
By 15, Flowers learned a rival dealer put a contract out for his murder. Almost a year to the day before Cooper’s murder, for which he served more than two decades in prison, Flowers shot the man rumored to be looking to kill him, according to court records. For that crime, he was convicted in juvenile court of assault with intent to kill and sentenced to probation.
Chip was killed on Valentines Day, 1996, Flowers recalls, on the street outside the Azeeze Bates apartments where he, McCraney, Stewart, and the rest of their friends spent much of their time. McCraney held Chip while he died.
“Just a dispute,” Flowers says now of the event that preceded Chip’s death, standing across the street from where it happened. “Just a neighborhood dispute.”
McCraney and Stewart’s stories are variations on the same theme.
Most of McCraney’s immediate family was addicted to drugs or alcohol or both, according to court records. His father was incarcerated for much of his adolescence. He witnessed his mother’s sexual assault at 5 years old, and watched her attempt to end her own life. At different periods throughout his childhood, the family was homeless and living on the streets, Judge Patricia A. Broderick described in her order granting McCraney a new sentence.
When Stewart was 6 and his sister was 8, his mother paid her lover $250 to murder their father, Robert Stewart, who worked as a residential counselor at Howard University. Gloria Stewart went to the bedroom Stewart shared with his sister and waited while Joseph Harrison stabbed her husband to death, according to the Washington Post’s report in 1986. Then she gave Harrison $20 for cab fare, and confessed that night to police, telling the officer that she had “domestic issues” with her husband.
Gloria Stewart was sentenced to 13 years to life in prison. Stewart and his sister then went to live with their aunt and uncle in the Azeeze Bates apartments.
“His uncle was addicted to crack cocaine, and the family rarely had adequate food due to lack of money stemming from the uncle’s drug habit,” Judge Salerno wrote in his order granting Stewart a new sentence. “Mr. Stewart’s uncle was also abusive to both children, including beating Mr. Stewart with a wooden plank.”
Flowers and McCraney, who now works for the District as a violence interrupter and as an analyst for the Corrections Information Council, regularly return to their old neighborhood. They talk to younger kids who hang around the Azeeze Bates apartments, as they once did. Flowers says the complex is one of the few pockets in the neighborhood that looks similar to the way it did when he left.
In talking with younger boys, he hears that some remnants of his childhood still linger.
“They still hold on to that because it was certain traumatic experiences that they saw us doin’ that impacted them,” Flowers says.
Sometimes Flowers visits the stone that bears Chip’s name, which was installed after he was locked up. D.C.’s murder rate has significantly decreased since the crack epidemic, and the Murder Capital years.
But after hitting a 20-year low of 88 homicides in 2012, the bodies are piling up again. There were 160 homicides in 2018—the second most in a decade. With 131 homicides so far in 2019, the death toll is outpacing last year’s count.
The words engraved along side Chip, LeRon, and Steve’s names echo those spoken by politicians, activists, and parents today:
Save the children
Stop the violence
We care. We love. We remember them all.
Just as victims are not a monolith, neither are the offenders.
Halim Flowers was a model inmate. In his 22 years in prison, Flowers received only six disciplinary infractions, the last of which occurred in 2004, and none of which were violent.
Flowers completed more than 5,000 hours of educational courses, 2,500 hours of vocational training, and earned college credit through Georgetown University, according to court records. He also served as a Suicide Watch Companion—a job that demands emotional maturity, empathy, and reliability.
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, the primary sponsor of the IRAA and its variations, writes in a letter to U.S. Attorney Liu that Flowers “could not present a better case” for release.
None of the surviving victims or their families testified at Flowers’ resentencing hearing.
Mustafa Zulu, whose petition is currently pending, may present a more difficult decision for the judge that hears his case.
Zulu was 16 in 1994 when he killed Michael Graham, who ran a drug trafficking operation in D.C. Prosecutors believe Zulu also executed 24-year-old Robbin Lyons, Graham’s girlfriend, to keep her from talking to police. He was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in Lyons’ death.
Zulu, who legally changed his name from Andre Brown, has served 26 years of a 50-years-to-life sentence. When he was 20, Zulu was sent to the Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado, where he was held for two decades in solitary confinement. A former warden has described the facility as a “clean version of hell.”
Zulu’s life followed a similar trajectory as Flowers, McCraney, and Stewart’s. By the time he was 12 years old, Graham enlisted him into his drug operation, and by 16, Zulu was Graham’s lieutenant, according to court records.
“Michael Graham put a gun in my hand when I was 12, and I never put it down until I was arrested at 16 for killing him,” Zulu wrote in a letter to the judge. “For years I was his shadow. I protected him, defended his name and product and even saved his life twice. By the age of 16 I was not only his enforcer, but a force of my own.”
He killed his friend and mentor, Zulu admitted, out of jealousy, envy, and greed.
At his hearing on Sept. 20, Bond, the federal prosecutor opposing his release, argued Zulu’s history of violent prison infractions—the most recent of which involved a fight in 2016—and his leadership role in Graham and Lyons’ deaths are enough to deny him a reduced sentence.
Bond also read from a letter Zulu wrote in 2004 where he described taking pleasure in beating another inmate. Zulu explained to the judge that the man had ridiculed his faith and threatened to harm him.
Bond also said that Zulu has not admitted responsibility for Lyons’ death. Although he was convicted of conspiracy, prosecutors in Maryland, where the crime occurred, dropped the charges against him. Any statements about Lyons’ death that he makes in court could still be used against him.
“Even though we’ve seen great evidence of education, what we haven’t seen is any evidence of changed character,” Bond argued.
Lyons’ mother, Stephanie Lyons, also testified against Zulu’s release. Robbin was her only child, she said, and her death left a void she will never fill.
“I have forgiven you,” she said to Zulu, who sat in orange prison garb beside his attorney. “I cannot forget what you took from me. I am empty inside. I’m alone. I have no grandchildren running to me.”
James Zeigler, Zulu’s attorney, points to Zulu’s dedication to educating himself, having completed 80 self-guided courses while in solitary confinement. He also enrolled in college classes through Georgetown University and other courses since he was transferred to the D.C. jail in 2018.
“When we talk about how much punishment is enough and how much culpability to ascribe to young people who committed crimes, I think his case provides a reminder that you can’t properly have those conversations without acknowledging how little of a chance some of these kids had,” Zeigler says in an interview with City Paper. “His case is an example of what is true in most: All these kids were deeply traumatized and damaged by the time they were 16 or 17. It’s not a coincidence that none of our IRAA guys grew up in Chevy Chase.”
Zulu’s belly chains rattled as he stood when it was his turn to speak in court last month. He turned to face the families of Graham and Lyons, who sat in the courtroom.
“Many of your statements and characterizations of me were accurate,” he said. “I’m ashamed and embarrassed of the person I once was. No child is created evil. It’s something I turned into.”
To the judge, Zulu described his decision to pursue education while in solitary confinement, some time before the Council began to address juvenile sentencing. “Books saved my life, and it had nothing to do with me trying to impress you and come home,” he said.
It’s been seven months since Flowers was released. In that short amount of time, he’s attained something of a celebrity status.
With 11 self-published books under his belt, Flowers now travels the country speaking at criminal justice conferences. Attorney General Racine invited Flowers to speak at an awards ceremony in August honoring influential local kids who’ve overcome obstacles such as homelessness, violence, and teen parenting.
Flowers is the recipient of two fellowships—one through the Halcyon Arts Lab, the other through Echoing Green, an organization that recognizes leaders in social justice and innovation. He also co-founded the Unchained Media Collective, which is dedicated to sharing the stories of those impacted by the criminal justice system.
Flowers, along with McCraney and Stewart, is also participating in a documentary with Kim Kardashian West, and he recently rubbed elbows with Grammy-nominated artist Trombone Shorty.
Walking past the former Kingsman Elementary School, which he and McCraney attended, Flowers suggests maybe he’ll purchase the place one day and turn it into a literature and art center for children.
“I’m a hustler,” Flowers says. “I didn’t come home to live average. I read the Wall Street Journal for years. I came home to live a wealthy life.”
Flowers continues past the school, past the house where he grew up on the corner of E and 17th streets NE, and runs into a familiar face standing on her front porch.
Arlene Robinson beams as she embraces Flowers and thanks him for the letters he wrote to her daughter while he was in prison. Flowers describes the younger woman as his adopted sister.
He talks with Robinson about how it was in the ’90s, when the now-quiet street in front of her rowhouse was another one of those places “where guys hang out.” On occasion, Robinson says, she would set up the grill and feed the men hamburgers despite warnings from police that she shouldn’t.
“You can’t be down on people,” Robinson says. “When you take a stance against somebody, then you can’t help ’em. But if you’re genuinely concerned about people, and they see that you’re genuinely concerned, it makes a difference to ’em.”