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Powell Murder Trial Opens

Malik Byrd, 14, stands trial for the July murder of Al-Rahn Powell, 18.

Ever since Dennis Wise punched Marquis Byrd in the face two years ago, the two teenagers didn’t get along. It was a lingering hostility that would culminate in a deadly confrontation on Mount Vernon Avenue one sunny July afternoon last summer. Dennis Wise, 19, was with his friend Al-Rahn Powell, 18. And Marquis Byrd, 16, was with his younger brother Malik Byrd, 14.

“They were trash talking us,” Wise said. “So we were trash talking them.”

According to Wise’s testimony, the verbal dispute erupted into physical violence in front of a barbershop on Mount Vernon Avenue. Both Byrd brothers were armed with loaded guns, and shots rang out during the struggle. The Byrd brothers then ran into a nearby alleyway toward Commonwealth Avenue, leaving Wise and Powell bleeding on the sidewalk.

“They were locked, loaded and ready,” said Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Shelby Hadfield. “All Al-Rahn wanted was a haircut. But instead he got a bullet to the head.”

Defense attorney Douglas Steinberg said that the Byrd brothers were afraid of Wise and Powell, who were older and physically larger than the two brothers. He said that the July afternoon confrontation on Mount Vernon Avenue was the result of the Byrd brothers’ fear of their perceived enemies. Prosecutors are trying the brothers separately, and Marquis Byrd’s trial is scheduled for later this month.

“This was a fight that got out of control,” Steinberg said in his opening statement. “The firearms were used in a defensive manner.”

THE MURDER SHOCKED the Del Ray community this summer because of its brazenness and its timing. The shooting that killed Powell happened in broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of the neighborhood's main thoroughfare, Mount Vernon Avenue. Wise and Powell were taken by helicopter to the Washington Hospital Center. 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 would likely spend the rest of his life 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 on the following day. Soon afterward Alexandria prosecutors upgraded the charges against both Byrd brothers to murder.

“Tensions between the family of the victim and the family of the accused are running very high,” wrote Judge Constance Frogale in an Aug. 11 court filing. “This court was advised earlier today to make extra provision for security in the courtroom for this reason.”

Judge Frogale ordered that the certification hearing in the Alexandria Juvenile and Domestic relations court be closed to the public to ensure safety and prevent what defense attorneys in the case argued was a “chilling effect” on potential witnesses. The judge’s written ruling, which is now part of the public record in circuit court, provides insight into a possible motivation behind the crime.

“Immediately before this hearing, this court conducted an advisement of another juvenile who was alleged to have committed assault & battery on Michael Byrd, one of the brothers of Malik and Marquis Byrd,” Frogale wrote. “This was somehow connected to the ongoing tension arising from these incidents.”

COURT DOCUMENTS show that the murder weapon — a 0.32-caliber revolver — was retrieved shortly after the murder behind 1304 Mount Vernon Ave. An Alexandria crime-scene investigator took possession of the weapon and placed it in the Police Department's property section and sent it to the Virginia Department of Forensic Science for analysis. Court documents show that Malik Byrd admitted shooting Powell in the head to homicide detective Thomas Durkin. Yet in one court filing, his attorney Douglas Steinberg suggested that his age prevented him from making a “free and voluntary” statement.

"Although the detective did have my client sign a rights waiver, Mr. Byrd, a fourteen year old, does not have the maturity or experience to intelligently waive his rights," wrote defense attorney Steinberg in a Sept. 14 filing. "Mr. Byrd asked for his mother and was not allowed to contact his mother until after the interview was completed. The mother could have assisted the child in determining whether it was in the child's best interest to talk to the police."

Prosecutors countered that the Alexandria Police Department was following the rules.

"Detective Durkin interviewed the defendant, and, after a waiver of Miranda, the defendant informed the detective that he had the revolver and fired at least one shot at Al-Rahn Powell," the Sept. 15 filing stated. "He stated that he then dropped the revolver behind 1304 Mount Vernon Avenue."

AT PRESS TIME, the trial was still unfolding. More evidence could emerge, and all suspects are innocent until proven guilty. Yet even as the wheels of justice turn, the Powell family continues to mourn the loss of Al-Rahn Powell, an active teenager with an interest in fishing, basketball and automechanics.

“He did not like guns,” said Nannie Powell, his grandmother. “We couldn't even get him a cap gun for Christmas because he didn’t want one.”

Cordessa Powell, his mother, said she thought the defense theory of the case — that the Byrd brothers were in fear of Wise and Powell — didn’t square with the reality of her son.

“It seems pretty far fetched to me,” she said.