A 16-year-old boy testified in a murder trial Thursday, telling the jury his alleged accomplice pulled out a gun and shot a 44-year-old ice cream vendor during a suspected attempted robbery last year in west Modesto.
Lavell Whitfield has agreed to a plea deal with the prosecution in exchange for his testimony against co-defendant DeWalter Mitchell, 20, who is accused of murder in the shooting death of Martin Ham.
"I heard a gunshot," Whitfield testified in Mitchell's trial Thursday. He said he saw the gun in Mitchell's hand.
That was the first shot Mitchell fired at Ham, Whitfield said, but the bullet did not hit the ice cream vendor. He said Mitchell's arm was extended straight ahead at shoulder level.
Then the second shot was fired and Whitfield heard screams coming from the "ice cream man," he testified. The victim apparently was screaming in agony after the bullet struck him in the abdomen. The wound caused internal bleeding and resulted in Ham's death at a local hospital.
Mitchell's trial is under way, and Whitfield will be tried separately. Whitfield was 15 when the shooting occurred but is being prosecuted as an adult.
Although he's a minor and being held at Stanislaus County Juvenile Hall, Whitfield displayed an imposing physical presence as he walked into the courtroom. He stands 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighs about 270 pounds.
Whitfield sat on the witness stand wearing shackles on his wrists and ankles and what appeared to be a bulletproof vest underneath an orange inmate T-shirt.
There were two probation officers and three bailiffs in the courtroom throughout Whitfield's testimony to ensure there were no disturbances.
Whitfield has agreed to a deal with the prosecutor to plead guilty to a lesser criminal charge that would result in a sentence of 13 years, eight months in prison. During cross-examination, Whitfield said he is aware the sentence means he will likely be out of prison in about 10 years with time already served in Juvenile Hall and good behavior.
To be home in 10 years, Whitfield testified, he has to tell the jury what he told investigators in an April interview. His meeting with authorities occurred after a judge determined there was enough evidence for both defendants to stand trial accused of murder in Ham's death.
In that April meeting when he agreed to the plea deal, Whitfield testified he was given fast food and authorities tried to arrange a special visit with his family. His family could not be reached in time for the visit.
Investigators had questioned Whitfield before, including an interview at the Modesto Police Department several hours after the shooting. Whitfield testified that he was not completely truthful in those initial interviews, but he was telling the whole truth when he was questioned in April and Thursday on the witness stand.
Whitfield testified he never had a gun when he and Mitchell confronted Ham, who had his ice cream bicycle cart with him about 4 p.m. Oct. 8. The encounter occurred near North Madison and Linden streets, about two blocks north of Maze Boulevard.
About two days before Ham was shot, Mitchell showed Whitfield a black handgun he had bought, Whitfield told jurors. He said he didn't know Mitchell had the gun with him until he fired it at Ham.
Deputy District Attorney Annette Rees showed Whitfield a black handgun that investigators recovered behind Mitchell's home. Whitfield testified it was the same gun Mitchell used to shoot the ice cream vendor.
A witness saw the attack on Ham from about 60 yards away. He has testified that he saw a taller suspect chase down Ham, grab the bicycle cart's handlebars and punch Ham on the side of his face. He also said the smaller suspect fired the gun, and both suspects ran away east toward an alley.
Thursday, Whitfield testified that he never chased or wrestled Ham during the violent encounter. He said he punched Ham four or five times before the first shot was fired.
After the shooting, Whitfield went home. He changed his shoes, took off his pants and put on some dark-green shorts. He then met Mitchell on Maple Street, where they could see police patrol cars with their emergency lights on and yellow crime scene tape where Ham was shot.
Whitfield testified that's when Mitchell said, "I shot him, I shot him."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.