The Romanian state-owned weapons manufacturer Romarm assembles AK-47s in factories in the town of Cugir, in Transylvania, at the base of the Şureanu Mountains. They’re massive, powerful guns, invented by the Soviets in the 1940s as one of the world’s first breeds of assault rifle.
Century Arms International, the largest American importer of military surplus gear, buys AK-47s from Romarm. Not long ago, one of its purchases, a WASR-10 model, found its way to Maryland, where it was stolen in 2009. By March 2010, the gun belonged to 20-year-old Orlando Carter of Washington Highlands, who stored it at a friend’s house for safekeeping, prosecutors said.
Late on the night of March 21, 2010, Carter picked up the gun. His younger brother, Sanquan, had called for help, angry that he couldn’t find his bracelet. Authorities said the Carter brothers shot up the house on Alabama Avenue SE where Sanquan had been hanging out, and Jordan Howe, 20, died.
Orlando Carter was shot in the shoulder two days later, probably in retaliation for Howe’s death. He planned revenge. He rounded up some friends and some guns, including his AK, prosecutors said. First, they sought out Tavon Nelson, 17, on Galveston Street SW, because they wanted an additional shotgun for their arsenal, and they knew he had one. They didn’t get the gun, but they left Nelson dead. Then, on South Capitol Street, Carter and his friends gunned down a bunch of kids—guests returned from Howe’s funeral who had nothing to do with the previous shootings. Eight were wounded, and three died.
Now, more than two years later, Howe’s family is suing Romarm. Amid the fallout from the shootings—which includes a criminal trial that found Carter and four other assailants guilty of murder, as well as proposed legislation inspired by the violence—the lawsuit will test the ability of the D.C. government to bring closure to a tragedy, restore the sense of justice it has splintered, and help victims’ families heal.
“I got a lot of pain in my heart,” says Norman Williams, Jordan Howe’s father. “I am outraged. My son was murdered by an AK-47 in the streets of the District of Columbia by a gun that wasn’t manufactured here. And how did it get here?”
That’s the same question Virginia attorney Dan Wemhoff is asking. He spent about a year tracking down Williams to tell him he could file a wrongful death suit against Romarm, on the grounds that Romarm shouldn’t have allowed the AK-47 to reach D.C.
Wrongful death claims can be made against anyone who could be found liable for a death. In the scheme of history, it’s a fairly recent concept: Laws once reflected the idea that death is an irreparable loss—a theory that may have originated with the Romans. Their law held that a freeman’s life cannot be assessed in monetary terms; to put a price on it would be morally reprehensible.
During the 19th century in England, amid frequent railroad deaths, that view receded. All 50 states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia now allow wrongful death suits. These laws all follow the same reasoning, which Wemhoff cites as an aim of Williams’ suit: “We want the parents to be beneficiaries of [Howe’s] death—of the economic loss of his death,” Wemhoff says.
Nardyne Jefferies, the mother of another of Carter’s victims, has filed her own wrongful death suit against the mayor’s office and 14 city agencies, claiming they should have known her daughter’s murderers were dangerous. It’s the civil-courts equivalent of a desperate cry for help. The city is trying to have the suit dismissed, says Ted Gest, a spokesman for the D.C. Office of the Attorney General. Jefferies declined to comment on her case, which is pending.
The larger goal in the suit against Romarm—apart from winning damages—is to keep guns out of criminals’ hands, Wemhoff says. He says suing weapons manufacturers can help manage the effects of guns on D.C. streets. The families of victims normally go after the gunmen, he says, but “these killers don’t have anything,” so it wouldn’t do much good to smack them with a huge lawsuit.
Romarm, on the other hand, has a lot. “I think it sends a message to the manufacturer,” Wemhoff says: that they should be responsible for tracking their guns once the company has released them into the world. Even though Romarm products can’t be purchased in D.C., courts have ruled that it would be “delusionary on the manufacturer’s part” to assume they won’t wind up here anyway, Wemhoff says.
“These kinds of suits are very important for holding the manufacturers accountable,” says Daniel Vice, senior attorney at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “Where our elected leaders have failed to stop gun trafficking, that makes litigation even more important.”
Wemhoff says he expects “the case will settle and this gunmaker will be forewarned to cut off suppliers who can’t warehouse its weapons properly.” If Wemhoff’s client wins the lawsuit, Romarm will “have to think for themselves about where their weapons are going. It damages their reputation to have a big lawsuit out here.” Romarm’s U.S.-based lawyers did not return calls for comment.
By at least one measure, wrongful death lawsuits might be effective deterrents: Gun manufacturers disliked them so much that Congress, cheered on by the National Rifle Association, banned such suits against domestic gunmakers in 2005. Since Romarm is Romanian, congressional intervention isn’t an obstacle here.
Instead, Wemhoff may run into trouble with current D.C. law, which says wrongful death suits must be filed within one year of the death. Wemhoff spent more than a year seeking out Williams after Howe’s murder. “When I finally reached [Williams] and filed suit, I knew that I was outside the statute of limitations.”
So Wemhoff took the issue to Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, whose Wrongful Death Act of 2012 would extend the one year to two. (Only D.C. and three states have such a short limit.) The bill has already passed two preliminary steps; one draft of the legislation mentioned the South Capitol Street shooting and alluded to Williams’ suit.
But bills like the Wrongful Death Act—noncontroversial legislation pushed through in the aftermath of devastation—tend to lack substance. They don’t demand justice. They don’t ensure that another bracelet won’t incite another massacre, or that another Romarm AK-47 won’t find its way to another D.C. street. They don’t resolve what government can do to heal in the wake of a crime so senseless. After all, there’s no legislative fix to grief.
The Wrongful Death Act will likely pass with unanimous support. But that doesn’t change Williams’ opinion of the councilmembers: “They’ve been shit,” he says. “I can’t wait to get back at the city council and tell them they’re all shit. They’re slimy dogs. They act as if they’re making a difference. We need to get rid of the whole lot of them.”
Williams thinks the city’s response to the shootings betrays a racial divide. “Until you get five white kids shot in the District of Columbia, then the law will change,” he says. But even Williams didn’t say exactly what laws he’d like to see changed.
Another D.C. Council attempt, David Catania’s recently enacted South Capitol Street Memorial Amendment Act of 2012, claims to enhance city services that might prevent future murders, but it hasn’t found complete funding. Some of its policies won’t take effect for a few years, and Catania says he has wide support to increase the funding when more is needed. But for now, that bill is as empty as any other.
Maybe the Romans were on to something: Trying to put a price on a life doesn’t make anyone feel better.
Government has a way of dehumanizing stories like this, reducing them to numbers in laws. The legislative legacy of Howe’s murder could wind up being a changed digit in a piece of D.C. code as old as Home Rule. But impotent though they may be, maybe everyone involved is trying in the only ways they know to repair the irreparable, to translate tragedy into official action—something concrete, something they can do something about.
And maybe the act of trying—the motion and process of writing laws and the hope that maybe they can do good—does mean something. After then-At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson’s gavel came down one last time during a public hearing on the Wrongful Death Act, he walked slowly off the dais as Jefferies approached him, her daughter’s portrait hanging from her neck. Silently, he gave her a hug.