Wheeled to the witness stand by a court officer, Sherita Maxwell — known as Chocolate by friends — spoke candidly about the morning she was robbed and shot last month while working on Woodward around Six Mile in Detroit.
"It felt good to tell my truth," Maxwell, a transgender woman, said after testifying at the preliminary examination. As she spoke, her friends circled around her wheelchair; the one she's been confined to since that fateful night.
"I was nervous at first, but I think it went very well," she continued.
About 10 minutes earlier, 36th District Judge Deborah Lewis Langston decided to proceed with the case prosecutors laid out against Charles Marion Brown, 21, and Jujuan Alexon Williams, 19 — two men accused of robbing and shooting Maxwell in the Palmer Park neighborhood last month.
"I agree with the argument," Langston said at the end of the hearing at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, choosing to bind over charges and maintain the $1.5-million bond that had been set for both men.
The defendants, who both face life in prison, are due back in court on Dec. 20.
On the morning of Friday, Nov. 17, Maxwell was walking up and down Woodward — between Six and Seven Mile — when at about 1:50 a.m. she was accosted by two men in hoodies and masks covering the bottom portion of their faces.
As seen on a surveillance tape shown Wednesday in court, the men — one of whom was holding a rifle and is believed to be Brown — jumped out of a GMC Yukon after rushing up to the curb where Maxwell standing. After a brief exchange — at which point Maxwell said she was told "drop the shit" — Maxwell threw her purse and began to run. Within seconds of her running — as one of the men picked up the purse — the gunman fired the rifle. Maxwell was shot in the back and arm. She fell to the ground almost instantly.
"I was screaming and hollering because I was paralyzed," Maxwell told the judge.
According to Detroit police who testified Wednesday, officers located the suspected getaway vehicle after the assault, and a chase ensued. It ended at Forest Park at Russell and Canfield. Williams, the suspected accomplice, was arrested after the car jumped a curb and stopped, while Brown, the suspected gunman, escaped on foot. Police arrested Brown the following day, after interviewing Williams, who shared information about the crime that matched the surveillance tape as well as facts about Brown like his Facebook name: Hothead Mack Avenue.
Police Officer Marvin Anthony, who is heading up the investigation, read portions of his interview with Williams, in which the teen stated that it was Brown's idea to rob "a transgender" and use a rifle as a scare tactic.
"Charlie told me he was going to jump out with a rifle, and when the transgender drops it (a purse,) to get it," Williams told Anthony in a Friday, Nov. 17 interview, hours after the attack.
"He told me 'Lil Bro, all you got to do is grab her purse when she drops it.'" Williams had continued later adding, "The transgender was kind of fighting back, that's when Hothead fired a shot at the ground, and the transgender dropped the purse."
Anthony also read from his interview with Brown, who told police he was not in the vehicle during the robbery and only got back in the car when the chase ensued.
While defense attorneys for Brown and Williams attempted to downplay Maxwell's credibility, questioning her ability to correctly identify the defendants if they were wearing masks, Fair Michigan Justice Project Special Prosecutor Jaimie Powell Horowitz pointed to the fact that one of the defendants was arrested in the car in question, and the testimony almost directly matched the surveillance video.
"Your honor, you saw the video, in this case, it speaks for itself," Horowitz said during her closing statements, noting that Brown appeared to be "shooting for sport" as he fired his weapon after the purse was dropped.
While William's attorney, Charles Longstreet, tried to ask for lesser charges for his client, arguing that he did not shoot the rifle, Langston denied the request pointing to both the surveillance video and the testimony, stating that Williams clearly knew a gun would be involved in the crime.
Brown is charged with assault with intent to commit murder, assault with intent to commit great bodily harm, armed robbery resulting in serious injury, armed robbery, fleeing and eluding, use of a firearm in connection with a felony, felon in possession of a firearm, and being a habitual offender – a second offense.
Williams is charged with armed robbery resulting in serious injury, armed robbery, use of a firearm in connection with a felony, felon in possession of a firearm, and being a habitual offender, fourth offense.
The case was worked on in conjunction with Fair Michigan Justice Project, a nonprofit group announced in July 2016 that assists Michigan law enforcement officers and prosecutors in solving serious crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons.
It's unclear if Maxwell was targeted because she is transgender. When asked, Anthony, the police officer on the case, said it was too early tell. Williams testimony, however, indicated that the boys were confident that they'd run into a transgender person if they went to this specific neighborhood — an area on Woodward between Six and Seven Mile roads where many in the LGBTQ community congregate and also a known spot for johns to pick up transgender women.
Between 2011 and 2016, seven trans or gender-nonconforming individuals were killed in Detroit. Of that number, all were last seen in the same stretch of Woodward across from Palmer Park.
"If someone wants to do something to a trans woman, it's unfortunate but they know they can go on any given day to Six Mile and Woodward and find any of them," Julisa Abad, the transgender director of outreach and advocacy at the Fair Michigan Justice Project told the Free Press last month. She noted that all of the trans or gender-nonconforming individuals that were killed between 2011 and 2016 were involved in what she called survival sex work. Maxwell also testified that this was why she was on Woodward at that hour.
According to Abad, many transgender women turn to the streets to make money, because of discrimination and a lack of job opportunities. The very thing they're doing to survive, however, also puts them in the direct line of danger as walking targets.
"Trans sisters in our community know they can come to Six Mile and Woodward to make money, to survive, but we need to take away the issues forcing them there," she said last month, adding that the lifestyle is not something she and her trans sister dreamt of when they were teens beginning to come into their own and explore their gender identities.
"Nobody says, 'I want to wake up and be a prostitute, I want to wake up and do survival sex work.' It's just disheartening."
In terms of hearing today, however, Abad believed it was a step in the right direction.
"I felt it was positive because it reinforces and shows the community the importance of coming forward and reporting crimes, so people can be brought to justice," she said, adding that it also shows perpetrators in Michigan that harassment and violence "won't be tolerated in any communities."
Contact Allie Gross: firstname.lastname@example.org