Jury issues verdict in Madison County killing

A man accused of gunning down a 16-year-old boy in a parking lot was found guilty of first-degree murder Thursday by a jury that deliberated for an hour.

Craig Miller, who was 17 when he was charged, was on trial for charges of first-degree and second-degree murder. He is accused of killing Malik Garrett, 16, of Venice, as part of a running feud.

According to the prosecution, Miller had a friend drive him to Madison in search of Malik, who was in the parking lot of Smiley’s convenience store with friends. “He was just standing there, talking to other kids, when he was ambushed by the defendant,” said prosecutor Lauren Heischmidt.

The prosecution said Miller walked up, shouted racial slurs at Malik, and opened fire. Malik was hit, they said, but got back up and tried to run away. But Miller pursued, they said, still firing, and Malik fell down.

“He goes up to Malik, stands over him, and fires more bullets,” Heischmidt said. “(Malik) is lying on hot asphalt, begging for his life, dying.”

Heischmidt said Miller wanted to surprise Malik, and should not have his charge reduced from first-degree to second-degree murder. The feud was over a previous shooting incident, Heischmidt said, that Malik “had nothing to do with.”

Afterward, Heischmidt said, Miller went back home. “While he’s getting rid of his gun, Malik’s family is arriving at Smiley’s, wondering whether he is going to live or die,” Heischmidt said.

Malik had been shot three times and was still alive when police arrived. He was taken to Gateway Regional Medical Center, where he died about an hour later. Before he died, Malik told police that Miller was the shooter, Heischmidt said.

“The defendant is trying to hide behind the law, hide from the consequences of his actions,” Heischmidt said.

In his testimony earlier in the trial, Miller admitted shooting Malik, but later said he was afraid of Malik and his friends, and thus the shooting was justified. But the prosecution showed video of his original interview with the police, in which he dismissively referred to Malik and his friends as kids.

“Whatever sins Malik may or may not have committed, he paid for them dearly. He paid for them with his life,” Heischmidt said. “It was retaliation. It was senseless. It didn’t have to happen.”

But defense attorney Dylan Jerrell argued that Miller had grown up in Brooklyn and East St. Louis, had been shot at several times, and believed his family was in danger from Malik and his friends, who called themselves the Dirt Gang. Earlier that day, someone had shot at Miller’s house, and Jerrell said Miller believed Malik was responsible.

“The state wants you to believe that it’s all solved, everything is under control,” Jerrell said. “He said over and over, ‘They damn near killed my mama. You’re trying to take me down for protecting my family.’”

Jerrell described a young man growing up in a violent neighborhood who carried a gun since he was 14 because he needed to protect himself.

“Craig Miller was scared,” Jerrell argued. “He has been scared since he was shot at when he was 13 years old… This is not a TV show or a two-day trial for Craig Miller. This is his life.”

Jerrell said Malik had shot at Miller at least twice, but the prosecution objected, stating there was no evidence Malik had ever been near Miller’s home or had ever shot at him.

Prosecutor Crystal Uhe called the defense argument “ridiculous.”

“You’re not in imminent danger when you go seek out your victim,” she said. “There is no question that he went there to kill him.”

Uhe also dismissed the argument that Miller grew up in a violent society, pointing out that Malik grew up in the same society.

“This is not Brooklyn, N.Y.; this is not Harlem, this is not the wild wild west,” Uhe said. “This is Brooklyn, Ill., about 15 minutes from this front door. Are we prepared to accept this?”

Uhe said the defense is blaming Miller’s mother, neighborhood, the Brooklyn Police Department, Malik’s friends and Malik himself for the shooting, but instead should hold Miller responsible. “The law applies to every single person regardless of where they grew up in the exact same way,” she said.

The real debate was not between guilty or not guilty; Miller had admitted on the stand that he shot Malik. Instead, it was between first-degree murder, which implies intent, and second-degree murder, which only applies if the jury believes that Miller honestly believed himself or others to be in danger, even if that belief is unreasonable.

“He believed at the time he was justified,” Jerrell said. “We’re not asking you to excuse him… we are asking you to convict him of second-degree murder, because he believed he had to protect himself.”

But the jury sided with the prosecution’s theory that Miller was set on retribution, not self-defense. They deliberated an hour before returning with a verdict of guilty on first-degree murder.

“Our prayers are with the victim’s family as they seek healing and closure from this terrible crime,” said Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons. “We look forward to securing a very lengthy sentence to keep this dangerous criminal behind bars well into the future.”

Miller remained in custody Thursday at the Madison County Jail pending sentencing by Madison County Circuit Judge Kyle Napp. Miller faces 20 to 60 years in prison on the murder charge, but since he used a firearm, he is eligible for an additional 25 years added to his sentence. He will be required to serve 100 percent of his sentence.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald