Dockweiler Beach is a beautiful state park in the Santa Monica Bay. Known for bonfires and barbecues, Dockweiler has plenty of parking and is a short drive from the gang-infested neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles. On March 17, 1995, two couples got into a car and drove there together. They would not all return alive.
That same day, several members of the Limehood Piru Street Bloods were at the beach. Kenji Howard and Edward Powell, and several others had driven down in a car and spent the day causing trouble. According to witnesses, Powell brought a gun he had obtained by trading away cocaine. He shot at several airplanes landing or departing from nearby Los Angeles International Airport.
At 10:00 p.m., when the beach closes, police officers arrived and ordered everyone to leave. While walking back to the cars, someone heard a voice out of Powell’s car say, “give me the strap,” meaning “give me the gun.”
Edward Powell drove his car after the car containing the two couples. As the two cars entered the freeway, Powell pulled the car containing the Bloods up next to the car containing the two couples.
The Bloods in Powell’s car flashed gang signs. None of the two couples were gang members. Then someone in the Blood car started shooting at the two couples. Approximately 10 shots were fired. Witnesses described seeing shots from the back passenger seat. That is where Kenji Howard was sitting. Later, Howard admitted to shooting his gun out of the window.
One of the four friends was killed immediately. That was Arkett Mejia, a young woman on leave from the Air Force to attend her parents’ 25th anniversary. Another one of the four friends, Travon Johnson, was also shot. He did not die immediately. He was paralyzed from the neck down and lived for 18 years, until 2013, in a coma. Then he succumbed to his injuries.
Powell drove Howard back to the gang’s territory. Howard was arrested the next day in possession of the gun. The gun was confiscated, tested, and determined to be the murder weapon. Officers also impounded Powell’s vehicle and noted that the rear windows did not roll down.
After Howard was arrested with the gun, he was released, probably because he was a minor. Howard was interviewed nine days after he was caught with the gun. He waived his Miranda rights and said that he saw Powell, “firing seven or eight shots.” In other words, he told the police that someone else was the murderer. “Numerous witnesses” said they saw Powell firing the shots.
Police are understandably suspicious of statements like that. Howard’s other statements did not give the detectives much confidence. He said he was sleeping when the shooting occurred, even though it was only 2 minutes by car from the beach parking lot. He falsely claimed that he had bought the gun from Powell the day after the shooting. He was released after the interview on his promise to return the next day. He broke this promise and fled to Seattle. He remained on the run for six weeks until he was captured.
After he was captured in Seattle, Howard interviewed again. Again, he denied being the shooter. He failed a polygraph. He was interrogated for three hours. Then he changed his story. He said that two other men made him shoot the gun. He said he “had not meant to hurt anyone.” He was not paying attention to where he was “capping” the rounds and had just shot out the window. He did not find out until a couple of days later that he had actually killed someone. He gave details about how he shot. He said he wrested his wrist on top of the open window in the door, pointed the gun downward, and fired several shots.
Howard confessed a second time to different investigators. He explained that Powell handed him the gun and threatened to hurt him if he did not shoot at the other car.
Kenji Howard was charged with murder. At trial, Howard retracted his confession and went back to his original story. He said that he was asleep when he was awakened by gunshots. He saw Powell reach over another man and shoot through the open front passenger window. The jury convicted him of firearm possession and hung on the remaining counts. The district attorney chose to retry the case. The second convicted Howard of murder and a grab-bag of other crimes. He was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole in 35 years, plus seven additional years. Howard appealed, but the Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment and sentence.
The Forensic Evidence
Investigators found gunshot residue on the front passenger door opposite Powell, who was driving. Howard was in the back passenger seat. GSR was found along the mid-section of the right passenger door along the top of it from from to back. Generally, the GSR was towards the center of the door. There was no GSR on the frame of the right passenger door, outside the car.
The GSR expert discussed Howard’s confession. He said that it was inconsistent with the forensic evidence. If the confession was true, and Howard was holding the gun outside and pointed down, it would not leave gunshot residue inside of the door at all. He did not consider whether the confession might be partially true, whether Howard might have changed the details to minimize his guilt, or any other scenario. He simply said that the portion of Howard’s confession where he described the position of his hands was not true.
Moreover, the shots into the victims’ car were “back to front,” meaning that the shooter’s gun must have been in front of the target car. But this which would seem to rule out Howard firing forward from the back seat through the front passenger window.
The People brought their own firearms expert. This expert disputed the conclusions of the first expert. Instead, he said he could not rule out the rear passenger as the shooter. He also said, however, that the evidence was also consistent with the driver being the shooter.
How Howard Got His Conviction Overturned
Because he was 16 years old at the time of the crime, Howard was given a “fitness hearing,” to determine if he was fit to be tried in adult court. A judge in juvenile court determined that it was appropriate to try Howard in adult court and transferred him there. He insisted on his trial, which eventually resulted in his conviction.
Powell, an adult, was also convicted of murder as an aider and abetter. Both convictions were either not appealed or upheld on appeal.
Both men went to prison. With no appeals left, both men were out of moves. The only thing they could do was finish their time. But men with access to a law library and time on their hands should not be counted out.
Whether or not this statement is true, it cost Powell nothing. He was already convicted of the crime. The punishment for a shooter and an aider/abetter is the same. In other words, Powell is man with nothing to lose by saying these things. As the court noted, he has not been given anything for his confession. But it has not cost him anything either. And his gang has a lot to gain. Howard could get out.
After Powell confessed, the Court of Appeal granted Howard’s writ of Habeas Corpus and sent it back to the trial court for a retrial. The office that would retry the case was the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office led by DA George Gascon.
What Gascon Did
Since Kenji Howard was 16 at the time of the incident, he was returned to juvenile court for another hearing about whether to transfer him back to adult court. When he got there, the assigned prosecutor had been given a script to read into the record. The script was from Chief Deputy Sharon Woo. It said that Howard “was a minor at the time of this offense. It is the policy of District Attorney George Gascón not to pursue transfer hearings to adult court. Accordingly, this matter will remain in juvenile court.”
Juvenile court supervision ends at 25, but Howard is older, and cannot be supervised there. In other words, he will get out immediately. Sharon Woo allowed him to be released immediately, without considering the merits of the case. But she went farther, and dismissed the case.
“In weighing the evidentiary challenges of proceeding to an adjudication [juvenile court trial] and the reality that no additional penalties can be imposed, the District Attorney’s Office has concluded that its current resource constraints and overarching policy considerations and broad discretion favor dismissal of this matter.
The District Attorney determines how best to represent society’s interest in prosecuting criminal offenses. Here the interest of justice and society’s interest as represented by District Attorney Gascón are best served by allocating the limited resources of the District Attorney’s Office to more critical needs.”
To summarize, the LADA received the case and dismissed it without even consider whether the defendant was guilty.
How LADA Will Make Kenji Howard a Millionaire
Now that charges are dismissed, Howard is asking for a finding of factual innocence. (Pen. Code, 851.8.) Remember, the appellate court only found that the defendant should be retried. It did not exonerate him. After all, he confessed. The LADA would have to oppose this motion. Given their position on the juvenile adjudication, it is clear that they will not use the same resources required for trial to oppose this motion.
LADA will allow the finding of factual innocence. Once this happens, the defendant is entitled to receive $140 a day from the California Victim Compensation Board. (Gov’t. Code, 4904.) This would result in an award of $1.2 million dollars to Howard that would otherwise go to other victims, like the families of Arkett and Travon.
This finding would also allow Howard to sue the state. This would result in legal fees paid by taxpayers. And of course, any recovery will be paid by taxpayers. Ironically, the victims’ families can’t get any of this money from Howard because the statute of limitations has run on their suits.
What Should Have Happened
Kenji Howard should be retried as an adult. First, it is appropriate to try him as an adult because the crime he confessed to, murder, is not ethically complex. Five-year-olds know that murder is wrong. Certainly, Kenji Howard knew that going to the beach with a bunch of gang members, shooting at airplanes, getting into a fight, and shooting into an occupied vehicle were wrong. It would be farce to claim that his “developing brain” prevented him from seeing this, or that it rendered him unable to resist the urge to murder people. The first judge was correct: this case belongs in adult court.
Second, Howard should be retried. This case is not black and white. The concerns raised by the appellate court, particularly those about the GSR evidence, are real. A jury should hear them and make a decision. Powell’s confession should be tested on cross-examination, which it hasn’t. The GSR experts should each testify to the jury, and the jury should decide which is more credible. All the other witnesses should testify as well. 1.2 million dollars is enough to pay the annual salary of 15 teachers. That’s an entire school. You and your neighbors should not give this money to a confessed killer unless there is a jury determination that he is not guilty.
I heard about this by reading an excellent article by Kathleen Cady for the Los Angeles Association of Deputy District Attorneys. It was also published in the Antelope Valley Times.
The Superior Court Criminal Memorandum of Decision on Howard’s Petition for Habeas Corpus.
Full version of the poster shown above, created by Mary Sutton.