Sitting behind the defense table are a pair of brothers, Gerald and Richard Arnold. Richard is in braids. Gerald is in a light blue shirt that’s too big for his frame. They look bored. Almost sleepy. They came into courtroom 320 clutching legal file folders. But the proceedings are slow and tedious. A juror is interviewed about her past drug charges. Another juror is quizzed. There is a bench conference in which someone flips the white noise switch.
The entire room is filled with white noise. It’s enough to make anyone—even defendants on trial for two murders and a raft of drug and drug conspiracy charges to feel a little lost.
The Arnold Brothers are inside this hot and packed D.C. Superior Court courtroom because of a pair of murders they are alleged to have committed on March 1, 2006. It has been nearly three years since police responded at 7:10 p.m. to the rear of 931 Wahler Place SE on report of gun shots. There, they found two young men suffering gunshot wounds.
Michael Branham, 18, of the 4400 block of Eads Street NE, and Michael Berry, 21, of Fort Washington, were transported to area hospitals where they died an hour later. Branham was a senior at Ballou. Berry had never gone up to Wahler to sell drugs before. That night was his first and only night. The D.C. Police posted a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. Soon, the reward was upped to $50,000. Police suspected the shooting was over drug turf. In late July, then-20-year-old Gerald Anthony Arnold was arrested for the murders.
At 10: 30 a.m., just before he calls the jury in, he asks the prosecutors and defense attorneys about their opening arguments.
One of the four defense attorneys says she will give the opening. “Better be good,” Alprin says to nervous laughter. “I’m kidding.”
After the jury is sworn in, Alprin goes through the indictments (crack, heroin, weed, guns, ammo, murder, conspiracy) and the rules governing—especially governing—the jurors’ notebooks. They can take notes but they don’t have to take notes. No one will ever see the notes. The notes are not a substitute for evidence. The preamble takes forever. None of the jurors appear to be taking notes.
At 11:02, prosecutor Vivien Cockburn stands up to give her opening. She first talks about the 900 block of Wahler. It’s a block that has a school, a deli, a small incline called “The Hill,” and the Arnold brothers who lived with their grandmother. They had a family business.
“I’m talking about the drug business,” Cockburn says, adding later: “This is about selling drugs and protecting drugs.” And still later: “I’m not saying it’s a big cartel like you see in South America or CSI or Miami Vice.”
Jurors learn that Richard Arnold has a nickname—-“Little Ricky.” His brother Gerald Arnold had a sidekick whose nickname is “Black Jesus.” Jurors also learn that in order to understand the murders that night, they are going to have to a) get caught up on the drug trade; b) go back in time five years.
Cockburn doesn’t use big words, a fancy T.V. style delivery or unnecessary dramatics. She sticks to the alleged facts. She keeps coming back to the drugs and the murders. She almost apologized for all the drug talk. She’s implying to the jury: you may not like the drug war, but I know you don’t like a double homicide. She’s pretty close to perfect for a difficult case involving drug dealers allegedly killing other drug dealers over turf. She weaves a solid narrative and makes sure to hit the points that make the victims human beings—-one had a good mother, the other was kid who was murdered on his first day out on Wahler.
Family members of the victims well-up within a few minutes.
Cockburn’s story begins in 2001. This is when the Arnold Brothers caught the attention of the police and started piling up charges like rites of passage. The charges are discussed. Drugs. Cash. Guns.
More Drugs. Cash. Guns.
Drugs with zip-lock bags emblazoned with the Arnold logo: An Ice Cream Cone.
An incident of pistol shooting in the back of their grandmother’s house. That time, when the cops arrived, they literally found a smoking gun.
After a bit, the jurors get caught all the way up to May 15, 2005. At 7 p.m., two officers heard a “pow, pow, pow” up on Wahler. They found Richard Arnold clutching a firework. They gave chase and cornered him behind an ice cream truck. They cuffed him and walked him back up to their patrol car. There, in front of a growing crowd, they patted him down, Cockburn says.
They found money in every pocket. Six thousand bucks. And two cellphones. Then the officers found keys to a car. The keys, the discovery of the keys, freaked out Richard Arnold more than the cash and cellphones.
Richard Arnold did not want the cops to have those keys. He begged for those keys, for someone other than the cops to take custody of them. The crowd begged for the keys. His brother Gerald begged for the keys.
Wahler Street did not get those keys. The cop walked the street, pressing the automatic door lock button until he heard Arnold’s car beep. He opened the door to the maroon car and searched it. Jackpot.
Inside, Cockburn states, there was a gun in the glovebox, ziplock bags, and cash in every crevice ($1,400 in total).
Then six days before the murders, the police did an undercover buy with a man standing next to Gerald Arnold. The undercover cop was convinced Arnold had a gun. It scared the shit out of him. As soon as the buy was done, he radioed the police about Arnold and the gun. The police swooped in. Arnold took off for his grandmother’s house.
Gerald Arnold dropped a 9-mm pistol along the way to his grandmother’s house.
Four days later, Gerald Arnold’ sidekick Black Jesus ordered Michael Branham to leave the block. It wasn’t so much as an order as a warning. The two didn’t fight. But the moment was heated. Branham was getting too successful on the Arnold Family’s turf. His business was so good, he started giving away sample baggies.
Branham had started selling drugs a year earlier on Trenton Place SE near his grandmother’s house. When his mom found out, she didn’t ignore it. She started calling the police on her son. She wanted him to finish his senior year at Ballou and maybe go to college. This drug business may have been new but it bit.
Branham, the prosecutor says, hatched a plan with a friend. They’d move their operations away from Branham’s mother’s watchful eye. They’d move their business to Wahler. Branham had known the Arnold Brothers. He’d seen them around, bumped into them at clubs. They weren’t friends. But they also weren’t enemies.
But then in an evening on March 1, 2006, they were. The prosecutor promised their would be witnesses that saw the Arnold Brothers gun down Branham and Berry. They were shot in the back, she says, and left paralyzed and bleeding to death on the pavement. Remember, it’s about drugs and murder.
At 11: 45 a.m., Cockburn wraps up her opening.
Judge Alprin calls for a short recess.
Tiasiah Branham, Michael’s mother, walks out into the hallway with a strong entourage. She looks calm, even relieved. The sight of the Arnold brothers sitting behind the defense table didn’t bother her. She’d seen them before when they were arraigned. “It’s good,” she says. “After three years, I’m prepared. I’m ready.”