One morning last winter, Ricardo McKeython put on a suit, ran a comb through his hair, and took the subway downtown to pay a visit to the man prosecuting his children for murder. He wanted to thank him.

At 9:55 a.m., McKeython arrived at 555 4th St. NW, the building that houses the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. Several minutes later, he was escorted up to Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Cobb’s office. McKeython had requested the meeting because he believed that Cobb had fought for leniency during attorney negotiations. Eventually, both of his sons had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, but McKeython says that on the basis of information their defense attorneys had shared with him, he felt that Cobb hadn’t wanted to see them hung out to dry. He thought he should let Cobb know that he appreciated the prosecutor’s efforts.

But what was intended as a brief, informal visit ended up allegedly producing information that McKeython thinks could bring his sons home. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is unable to comment on what was said during the meeting, but McKeython repeats the story again and again to anyone who will listen.

McKeython says that after he took a seat, he started digging around in the black cloth bag he’d begun carrying shortly after his sons found themselves in trouble. He’d needed something to lug around the stacks of paper that his sons’ cases had produced. He pulled a Bible out of the bag and, then, a picture out of the Bible—an old, fuzzy photograph of a much younger McKeython with his sons, as toddlers. “These are my sons as well as my two best friends,” he said to Cobb. “These boys are my hearts. I’ll stand for them ’til death.”

According to McKeython, Cobb replied, “Good—most boys don’t know what a father is.”

Then, the men started to discuss everything from churches to education to haircuts. McKeython offered that he had attended Phelps Vocational High School, and he says that Cobb shared that his father used to take him there to get haircuts. Together they tried to figure out the name of the barber who had sheared the young Cobb’s head. Several minutes into the conversation, as McKeython tells it, the prosecutor pulled out a stack of photographs of a vandalized red Mercury Sable, and said, “I have pictures of the car.”

On May 3, 2004, McKeython’s son Raashed Hall and his pregnant girlfriend, Ashley Ford, stopped at George’s Carry-out on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE. Raashed became involved in an altercation with a group hanging out at the carryout. Ford joined in, but the two found themselves outnumbered. As the couple fled, Ford’s red Mercury Sable was smashed up and shot at. After leaving the scene, Raashed called his brother Ricardo, explained what had happened, and told him that he needed a gun.

While everyone, from the media to the prosecutors to his sons’ own defense attorneys, focused on what happened after Raashed made that call— Raashed and his brother would go on to commit one of the most tragic crimes in local memory—McKeython became consumed by what happened before. He saw the carryout incident as a catalyst that hadn’t been given enough weight in the court proceedings. To his surprise, Cobb seemed to agree. “If Ashley didn’t jump in your son’s lap, she would have been wounded or killed,” McKeython recalls him saying.

Then, McKeython alleges, Cobb threw out an even juicier bit of intelligence: “He said, ‘We know who jumped your son at the carryout. We know who was on the porch that night. We know who your son was shooting at—the one that tried to kill him and his girlfriend.I will tell you his name: Butt-Butt. We call him Butt-Butt. If your son had hit him, he would have been doing us a favor. And gotten away scot-free. No questions asked.’”

“I’m thinking, Do this man know who he’s talking to?” McKeython says.

When McKeython got outside, he was reeling. He took Cobb’s admission to mean that not only did the U.S. Attorney’s Office know who had jumped his son, but also didn’t assign all of the blame for the murder that night to his kids. He figured that if the prosecutor knew that the group who had attacked his son was a volatile bunch he would somehow employ a light touch at their upcoming sentencing.

But McKeython also knew that any clemencies would be hard-won. His boys’ crime had horrified the District, and their involvement was indisputable.

After receiving Raashed’s phone call that night in May, Ricardo went to Raashed’s apartment building, bringing his younger brother a 9mm Luger, according to court documents. At approximately 9 p.m., Raashed fired shots at people standing on the porch of 808 52nd St. NE, believing they had been involved in the incident at the carryout. The bullets missed the intended targets, but two that ripped through the front window of the house struck people inside. One hit then-38-year-old Darlene Taper in the shoulder, wounding her. Another hit 8-year-old Chelsea Cromartie and killed her.

In a statement released a day after the shooting, Mayor Anthony A. Williams said, “It is hard to imagine how the parties responsible for this horrific crime could become so indifferent, so incapable of appreciating the gift of human life.” Four days later, hundreds of mourners attended Chelsea’s funeral.

McKeython alleges that, faced with such public outcry, it was impossible for his sons to receive fair treatment. From questioning through sentencing, McKeython says they were victims of a system that was eager to satisfy an outraged city with speedy convictions.

“It’s all about this,” McKeython says, holding up five fingers on his left hand and three on his right. “Eight. Eight years old.”

McKeython is even planning on filing civil suits against Raashed’s and Ricardo’s respective defense attorneys, Billy L. Ponds and Danny Onorato for what he perceives to be their errors in representing his sons. In August 2004, Raashed and Ricardo entered guilty pleas. McKeython says that once the plea bargaining was over with, communication with the defense attorneys was sporadic, at best, until sentencing.

After his sons pleaded, McKeython started conducting his own research, hoping that somehow there would be a loophole that would free them—or at least redistribute the blame for the murder. He filed a complaint against Ponds with the Office of Bar Counsel. He began writing lengthy letters to judges, reporters, and anyone else he thought might have some influence over the case. According to McKeython, he fielded late-night anonymous calls during which secret tipsters told him his kids were getting a raw deal and offered avenues he should pursue.

After months of working toward getting his sons a fair shake, McKeython thought he had finally found a person of influence who agreed that Raashed and Ricardo shouldn’t spend the rest of their lives in prison. Confident that Cobb’s words would translate into reduced sentences for his sons, McKeython stopped running around in circles and decided to sit back and wait.

On Jan. 14, McKeython traveled to the H. Carl Moultrie I Superior Courthouse to watch Ponds and Cobb debate a proper sentence for 22-year-old Raashed. McKeython claims that, following his son’s talks with lawyers, he was under the impression that Raashed would likely be sentenced at the lowest end of the scale for his crime, 12 years, even though, according to guidelines, he could receive as many as 24 years.

He thought that, depending on what Cobb chose to emphasize, Raashed’s prison time might even drop down into the single digits.

But McKeython found Cobb to be less than sympathetic in court. Although Cobb credited Raashed for displaying remorse, he chalked up his actions on the night of May 3 to “bravado,” saying that “real men walk away. Real men go home, they go to the police, they tell the authorities,” according to court transcripts. And the prosecutor stressed the need to “send a message so that everybody in the community, everybody in the city sees that we don’t tolerate that type of action.”

“He said my son took the law into his own hands—I was shocked,” McKeython says. “Especially after he said if Raashed had killed Butt-Butt, he would’ve been doing them a favor.”

McKeython was even more shocked when Judge Ann O’Regan Keary sentenced Raashed to 23 years—21 years for second-degree murder while armed and an additional two years for an assault-with-a-dangerous-weapon offense stemming from the wounding of Taper.

Still, McKeython knew that since Raashed was the admitted shooter in the case, it would have been difficult for the prosecution not to throw the book at him. He hoped that 24-year-old Ricardo, who had provided his brother with a gun and a ride, would end up with less time. “I still wanted to see what would happen with Rick,” McKeython says.

Fourteen days later, Ricardo was sentenced to 20 years for second-degree murder while armed—only a year short of his younger brother’s sentence for the same charge.

At Ricardo’s sentencing, Cobb again commended the Hall brothers for their displays of remorse and regret and acknowledged that “something bad did happen on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue.” But he went on to speak out against their retaliation and said that the brothers “could have shot the guy on the porch, and I understand the reason why they would try to shoot him, and that would have been bad, and here it was even more tragic.”

McKeython was stunned by the amount of time that “Li’l Rick” received. All the more frustrating was the fact that there wasn’t much that his sons could do. Raashed and Ricardo had forfeited their right to appeal when they pleaded guilty, and the Office of Bar Counsel had opted not to investigate the complaint McKeython had filed against Ponds. But he still had something to fight with: Cobb’s statements during their meeting.

“Charles Cobb is my rumble piece,” McKeython says. “He made an example out of [my sons] for taking the law into their own hands, so I’m gonna make an example out of him.”

On Feb. 18, McKeython filed a civil suit against Cobb. In the filing, he blames the prosecutor for “withholding very critical, crucial and factual evidence that would have completely changed the outcome of the case of Ricardo and Rasheed Hall.”

With “interest and costs,” McKeython is asking for a total of $25,500,000. “It’s just a number I came up with,” he says of the sum.

The “evidence” McKeython referred to includes Butt-Butt’s name and the names of other members of the carryout gang. He didn’t much like that Cobb had suggested that his sons should have killed Butt-Butt to help out the U.S. Attorney’s Office, either, but the information regarding Butt-Butt was really the crux of his suit.

Going public would do several things, McKeython reasoned. It would help to implicate the young men at the carryout who had started the whole big mess. It would also prove that the police and Cobb probably knew who these young men were, as well as their whereabouts, but had done little or nothing to bring them to justice. Finally, he thought that if others in the city could see that such pertinent information is often buried in important cases, it would spur people to action.

“If they know this much about this case, what makes you think they don’t have information about all of these unsolved murders out here?” McKeython asks.

McKeython, 52, executes his mission with alternating bursts of loud energy and spells of thoughtful planning, although the exuberance comes more naturally. His long, thin frame fueled by homemade vegetable juice, he runs around all day, every day, preferring to juggle several flexible commitments rather than a few unyielding ones. He earns a living by transporting autistic adults, fixes televisions out of his Capitol Heights, Md., home as a hobby, and typically arranges his schedule so he can take his youngest son back and forth to elementary school each day.

“I’ve always been a do-what-I-wanna-do person,” McKeython says. “Now I have this.”

He admits that it’s hard for him sit down and carry out many of the necessary minutiae of exposing perceived injustice. In his writings to people in positions of power, McKeython’s main goal, he says, is to make his letters readable. They contain handwritten words, often in capital letters and punctuated with exclamation points, interspersed with typed bits of text from previous correspondence composed on a computer.

“I am not a smart man, nor am I A FOOL! so I Thought!” McKeython writes in one of his missives.

The collages have the desperate look of ransom notes. McKeython says that two investigators from the U.S. Attorney’s Office paid him a visit in late April to inquire about the letters.

McKeython says his writings are meant to force those who he believes are morally complicit in crimes to take some legal responsibility as well. For in the Utopian justice system of McKeython’s belief, no one is above reproach. Not even the kid who annoys the kid who aggravates the kid who eventually goes on to shoot someone. No player is too big or too small to escape condemnation.

And McKeython has decided that the legal system is going to have to reshape itself so it performs in the way he believes it ought to work—at least where Raashed and Rick are concerned.

“We as a people, we let things go,” he says. “But me—if there’s something there, I’m gonna stick with it. Stick wit it, stick wit it, stick wit it, stick wit it.”

When all is said and done, McKeython wants the blame for the killing of Chelsea Cromartie cracked into a thousand pieces and sprinkled all over the city so that everyone can have a bit. If he were distributing these imaginary shards of burden, the men who attacked Raashed would surely receive a large chunk. The police would get a bit for not putting together every piece of the puzzle in a timely manner, and, of course, Cobb would get the lion’s share for, in McKeython’s view, sitting on the information that he believes could have made a difference in Raashed’s and Rick’s cases.

“Everybody has played a part in this—there’s a lot of ‘never shouldas,’” McKeython says. “Raashed and Rick never shoulda had that gun; those boys never shoulda jumped [Raashed and Ashley]….There are a whole bunch of ‘never shoulda beens.’ There are so many—get some of these other people.”

And, although nothing ever emerged during the ordeal to suggest that McKeython or the boys’ mother, Cheryl Hall, were anything other than dedicated parents, he even assigns a portion of the blame to himself.

“If I blame anybody, I blame me,” McKeython says. “I always said to them, ‘If your brother is in trouble, you look out for him.’ But I didn’t mean with no gun.”

Each of the Cromarties keeps a memento of Chelsea close. Daniel Cromartie, Chelsea’s father, has a painstakingly rendered likeness of his daughter tattooed on his left forearm. Takisha Cromartie, Chelsea’s mother, wears a dog tag around her neck with an equally detailed engraving of her daughter’s face. Little Dan, Chelsea’s younger brother, has a teddy bear stand-in for his sister. It is also named Chelsea and sleeps in the bunk bed he used to share with her—the teddy gets the top, just as Chelsea used to.

During the course of the case, Takisha and Daniel saw the same photos of Ford’s red Mercury Sable with broken windows and bullet-hole dimples that McKeython saw. Takisha says she flipped through the stack of pictures with indifference. She and her husband know that Raashed and his girlfriend were terrorized; they’re familiar with the early facts of the case. They’re also familiar with the “Huntwood Crew,” a group of kids in the area who take their name from a neighborhood housing complex. Neighbors and friends told them that kids from Huntwood were involved in the carryout attack.

“I remember hearing about Huntwood; they’re known for doing stuff in the neighborhood….They sit up at the school, on that porch. They’re always somewhere in the vicinity,” Daniel says.

The Cromarties believe that if anyone at the carryout were going to be implicated, it would have happened by now. “They know where those people are,” says Takisha. “And if they don’t know, they have a clue. And if they don’t have a clue, they know someone who has a clue.”

They also say that they were led to believe that the age of the instigators was a factor. “From our understanding, those guys were kids, and there was nothing they could do,” says Takisha.

People in the neighborhood put the ages of the Huntwood kids at between 15 and 18 and cite the Merritt Elementary School playground and George’s as their favorite spots to congregate. The carryout, in particular, provides a steady stream of people that the gang can toy with for its amusement.

“If the pope walked in there they’d say,

‘A-ha! Look at his hat! He got a dress on!’” says one George’s patron of the kids.

Daniel used to hang out in the area around the corner of Nannie Helen Burroughs and Division Avenues and knows firsthand of the activity that goes on in that part of Deanwood. “I’ve been around there since I was young,” he says. “I’ve been out there with the drugs. But you’d never hear about kids getting shot.”

Still, the Cromarties see the incident at George’s and the shooting that killed Chelsea as completely separate matters, not as an indisputable case of cause and effect.

“That might be a case on its own,” Takisha says of the carryout assault. “But that had nothing to do with our case.”

They don’t care what happens with the kids at the carryout as long as information about their actions isn’t used in any way to justify the actions of Raashed and Ricardo Hall.

“My concern was, as long as you got who pulled the trigger—I’m not heartless,” Takisha says, interrupting herself. “It’s not that I don’t care that someone was after them, but my only concern was that they got who my case is about.”

And in the Cromarties’ minds, the Hall brothers got off light. Raashed’s 23 years was a few decades shy of the figure the Cromarties thought he deserved. They didn’t attend Ricardo’s final court date because they didn’t want to go through the disappointment twice.

“We saw [Raashed] get a slap on the wrist and knew that the other one was gonna get a slap on the wrist,” says Takisha.

As parents, both Cromarties say, they understand McKeython’s desperation but that his actions amount to, at best, grasping and, at worst, an attempt to get others to admit guilt so his sons can shirk their responsibility.

“Go after them—I’m not mad at you,” Takisha says. “Just don’t try to justify.”

Takisha and Daniel say that they’ve had to accept the fact that their child is gone and that McKeython should do the same. In fact, it should be easier for him, since he can still see his kids from time to time, talk to them on the telephone, and look forward to the day when they’ll come home. They suggest that McKeython face the reality of the situation rather than waste energy pursuing something that may never turn out in his favor.

“I’ve accepted it as an accident,” Takisha says of the shooting. “I don’t wanna shake your hand, be your friend, or even walk on the same sidewalk you’re walking on, but I’ve accepted it as an accident.

“I’ve accepted they didn’t mean it,” Takisha continues calmly while watching Little Dan playing on their front stoop. “You have to accept that your child took a life.”

McKeython acknowledges that his newfound activist streak is solely inspired by the incarceration of his two sons. No matter how unjust or despicable the criminal-justice system might have been before last May, it was only after Raashed and Ricardo became a part of it that McKeython took an interest.

“I want to show the boys that they still have someone fighting for them,” he says. “I know it’s wrong. These boys have a daddy; I’m not gonna let ’em go down.”

McKeython claims that he has been, on some level, preparing for something like this since his first child was born. He says it was never out of the realm of possibility that one of his kids would be involved in some sort of tragedy, be it as a victim or perpetrator.

“I always think, Those could be my children,” McKeython says. When he first heard of Chelsea’s murder, his reaction was no different. He wondered, just for a split second, if any of his children could be involved. “If a house is on fire, that could be my house—it could be anybody’s children involved.”

Now that his distant fear has been realized, he spends much of his time taking care of business relating to his sons, albeit in a different way from what he is used to. He has always taken his kids back and forth to school, done laundry, cooked. “I saw this Oprah about dads taking care of children,” McKeython says. “Put all of them together and they can’t touch me.”

But in taking on the criminal-justice system, McKeython has left the role of everyday comforter to Raashed and Ricardo’s mother. Cheryl is the one they call up to talk to as they struggle with their incarceration—and with the fact that the people who tried to kill Raashed and Ashley are still free. She is the one who tries to ease their minds, leaving McKeython to concentrate on the larger, and less practical, task of changing the basic tenets of justice.

McKeython is supremely confident that he will prevail. His case is going to break things open, he says. There will be countless interviews and enormous public interest in how he managed to shine a spotlight on our backward legal system. There will be no more closed-door meetings and whispering at the bench, deciding what evidence should and should not be heard.

“It’s coming! It’s gonna blow!” he’s fond of saying of his case, usually at a volume appropriate for someone announcing a volcano’s impending explosion.

He has even conjured up a vision of the press conference that will be held after he defeats Cobb in court. The first thing he will do when he goes in front of the news cameras will be to apologize to the Cromartie family. He’ll thank God, and talk about how his faith made it all possible. And he’ll throw out what has become his catch phrase over the last year, the trademark wording that has been included in most of the various correspondence he has filed: “Truth crushed to the earth will rise!”

“That’s my favorite little saying,” McKeython says.

Despite his enthusiasm, the chances that McKeython’s victory speech will ever actually happen are slim to none, at least according to precedent. “You could look at the dockets in D.C. and around the country and find cases filed against assistant U.S. attorneys, assistant district attorneys, FBI agents…but how many result in entry of judgment against the government official? When we get to that question, very, very few of the number of cases filed,” says Mark Nagle, former chief of the civil division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and current partner at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton.

“In D.C., from 1985 to 2004, no assistant U.S. attorney has been personally held liable for an act or omission in their capacity as a U.S. attorney,” Nagle says. He adds that he believes that record holds true for the years prior to 1985, before his tenure at the office.

Still, McKeython is undeterred, and his sons are equally hopeful—they are, naturally, the biggest believers in McKeython’s gospel. Raashed and Ricardo, who admit that their communication with their father is infrequent, say they view the lack of personal contact as a necessary sacrifice for the work he’s doing on their behalf.

“We know he’s busy every day,” says Raashed.

“He believes it’s right,” says Ricardo. “If he thought we were wrong, he wouldn’t do anything.”

Like their father, the Hall brothers believe that if their case hadn’t been so prominent, things would’ve turned out differently. “[The police] were so satisfied with pleasing everybody—pleasing the public by arresting us,” says Raashed during a telephone interview from Rivers Correctional Institution in Winton, N.C. “That was the furthest thing from their mind, locking those other dudes up.”

“Since we’ve been in jail, we’ve been hearing things,” Ricardo says. “That they’ve been wreaking havoc for a long time—that’s what they do. Steal cars, rob people, and harass people inside and outside the carryout.”

“When the altercation happened, I actually hadn’t seen any of them a day in my life,” Raashed says. “But talking to people…everybody knows who the dudes are.”

Raashed and Ricardo both say they would like the group at the carryout to be brought up on attempted murder charges for firing shots at Ashley’s car, which may not be outside the realm of possibility.

“There is still an ongoing investigation in respect to the assaultive conduct which preceded the murder of Chelsea Cromartie,” says Albert Herring, deputy chief of the Homicide Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and supervising prosecutor for the Cromartie case.

McKeython still believes that charging the carryout kids could change the fortunes of his sons. But as preoccupied as he is with the carryout group, he’s never actually gone out looking for them.

He has stopped his car, on occasion, to check out their stomping grounds. The kids travel through a maze of paths and shortcuts that allow them to travel between George’s, Merritt, and the Huntwood Courts apartments without having to walk on an actual sidewalk for very long—quite a feat, given that the rest of the area is well-exposed.

McKeython was so impressed with the thoroughfare between the carryout and 52nd Street that he photographed it.

But he doesn’t have much hope that the open case will result in any arrests. And even if it did, bringing the carryout kids up on charges wouldn’t have any bearing on his sons’ sentences. “The charges, if any, which may flow from that investigation are separate from the murder charges,” Herring says.

McKeython’s insistence that the boys at the carryout shoulder some of the blame for Chelsea’s death is less about legal validity than moral responsibility.

But a moral argument won’t bring the Halls back home, a fact that the women in their lives seem to realize. Ashley and Cheryl agree that it’s awful that the carryout boys threatened Raashed and Ashley’s lives and have, thus far, gotten away with it. Yet they choose to focus on distracting Rick and Raashed from their prison terms, rather than joining McKeython in his fight against Cobb.

Ashley, shot at while pregnant, was interrogated by the police. She says that, at one point, she was threatened with being charged as an accessory. She has watched as her partner was banished to prison for a large chunk of his adult life, and she’s raising their son without him. She doesn’t wish her ordeal on anyone—not even those who attacked her at George’s.

“Even though they did what they did…I never want to see anyone in the situation Rick and Raashed are in,” she says.

Cheryl, like McKeython, fights for her sons, but she’s more comfortable waging a campaign against their defense attorneys rather than the prosecutors. And despite sharing McKeython’s view that “the system” is inherently corrupt, she’s less of a maverick. She prefers quieter forms of action, such as sending off letters to the Office of Bar Counsel concerning Ponds and Onorato and encouraging her sons to work with the jailhouse lawyers at Rivers.

But she doesn’t take into account what happened at the carryout on May 3 when she’s figuring out what went wrong and who is conspiring against her sons. “I take those boys out of the equation,” she says. “They should be held accountable, but I won’t have banners, standing downtown, telling them to lock them up.”

After watching an entire city dissect her sons’ characters and sound off on what their fates should be, Cheryl is not about to turn around and do the same thing to someone else’s child. The real enemy, in her mind, is the cycle of violence and incarceration that ensnared her sons. She reasons that the carryout boys are no more to blame for their actions than her own.

“The boys—they were boys. Young boys. My anger is with law enforcement, not them. I don’t think about them boys.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.