It was a beautiful, sunny day on Mount Vernon Avenue. Cars whizzed by as the sound of children playing could be heard in the distance. Yet for Marquis Byrd, who was 16 on the afternoon of July 29, it was a dark time. According to his lawyer, the diminutive teenager was fearing for his safety — a condition brought on by a lifetime of bullying. That’s why, according to his defense, he arrived on Mount Vernon Avenue armed with a loaded .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol. As an added measure of safety, he handed his 14-year-old brother, Malik Byrd, a loaded .32-calibur revolver.
“Marquis Byrd was fearful for his life,” said Gary Smith, his lawyer.
In his opening statement on Monday, Smith laid out a theory of defense that explained the death of Al-Rahn Powell as an accident — one that was prompted by Powell, 18, and his friend, Dennis Wise, 19. Ever since Wise punched Marquis Byrd in the face two years ago, the two teenagers hadn’t gotten along with one another. The feud lingered into an escalating confrontation that would eventually erupt in violence along one of Del Ray’s most populated streets. Smith said that Powell and Wise confronted the Marquis and Malik Byrd that afternoon, prompting a showdown that the brothers would have rather avoided.
“They were circling on their bicycles in a threatening manner,” Smith said. “And they were much bigger and stronger.”
AS SMITH SPOKE to the jurors, Marquis Byrd sat at the defendant’s table in Courtroom 1 wearing a charcoal suit, black tie and white socks. Smith motioned for the jurors to notice his size, small for a 16-year-old. The defense attorney again sounded the theme of a fearful teenager, worried about being bullied and prepared to take up arms to protect himself. He explained that the Byrd brothers were trying to remove themselves from the situation when the shooting began.
“They were fleeing,” Smith said. “They didn’t want a showdown.”
But a showdown took place in the 1300 block of Mount Vernon Avenue that day outside of the Ultimate Styles Barbershop. Marquis Byrd struggled with Wise, shooting him twice in the legs. Malik Byrd struggled with Powell, shooting him in the head. Both of the brothers fled the scene toward an alley leading to Commonwealth Avenue.
Wise and Powell were taken by helicopter to the Washington Hospital Center, where Wise endured six surgeries in two weeks to save his leg. Powell clung to life for several days, but eventually his doctors concluded that he was in a persistent vegetative state. Powell’s family made the difficult decision to withdraw life support on Aug. 8, and the doctors carried out the directive the following day. Soon afterward Alexandria prosecutors upgraded the charges against both Byrd brothers to murder. During the trial this week, prosecutors played a recorded call from the jail in which Marquis Bryd could be heard laughing about the crime.
“The defendant was an accomplice to murder,” said Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Shelby Hadfield. “His response to trash talk was deadly force.”
EARLIER THIS MONTH, a separate jury convicted Malik Byrd for the murder of Al-Rahn Powell but acquitted him of maliciously wounding Wise. Although that jury would have otherwise sentenced Malik Byrd, because he is a minor a judge will impose his sentence in December. Similarly, a judge would sentence Marquis Byrd if a jury convicts him because he is a minor.
“By statue in Virginia, anytime a juvenile is transferred to the circuit court, the court retains jurisdiction over sentencing,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney S. Randolph Sengel. “The reason for that is that the court has a greater array of options in sentencing.”
At press time, the jury was deliberating on a verdict in Marquis Byrd’s case.