Teen convicted of murder will spend next 40 years in prison

A 19-year-old man convicted of gunning down a 16-year-old boy in a Venice parking lot will serve 40 years in prison for murder.

Craig Miller was 17 when he was charged with first-degree and second-degree murder in the death of Malik Garrett, 16, of Venice, in 2014. He was convicted in April by a jury that deliberated for one hour. But his young age at the time of the murder was a subject for debate before Madison County Circuit Judge Kyle Napp during his sentencing hearing Wednesday.

Miller was seeking retribution after someone had shot at his home in a drive-by that day. A video played at trial showed Miller walking up to Malik, shooting him, and pursuing him across the parking lot when he tried to run. Malik made it to the hospital and was able to tell police who had shot him before he died.

Miller admitted the shooting, but said he was afraid of Malik and his friends, believing that they were behind the drive-by. The defense argued that Miller had been shot at since he was 13 years old and carried a gun because of the violent neighborhood in which they lived.

The trial was not focused on guilty or not guilty, but rather whether it was first-degree or second-degree. The latter would only have applied if the jury believed that Miller truly thought his family was in danger and he was justified in the shooting. The jury sided with the prosecution, and convicted Miller of first-degree murder, which could have carried a sentence of 20 to 60 years with a 25-year enhancement for the use of a firearm. He will be required to serve 100 percent of the sentence.

Prosecutor Lauren Heischmidt said Miller was wearing a T-shirt that read “Protect Brooklyn” with the image of an AK-47 when he left home looking for Malik, calling it a “cold, calculated, premeditated murder.”

But defense attorney Mary Copeland argued that the family had no faith that the shooting would be taken seriously by law enforcement. She pointed out that Miller was barely 17 years old when the crime occurred, and the law has been shifting in its treatment of young people in criminal cases.

“We know that teenagers, that juveniles, are different from adults,” she said. “We know that 17-year-old juvenile offenders are not the same. ... (Teenagers) act impulsively, don’t always consider the consequences of their actions.”

Copeland said the defendant and the victim were growing up in “parallel lives,” describing a neighborhood and society where gun violence and escalation is common, even expected. She described an environment of “kill or be killed,” where a strong reaction to violence was expected to avoid becoming a repeated target.

“It is a dangerous place to be,” she said. “They develop a hypersensitivity to threat and ... heightened aggression.”

Miller’s father was shot when he was a child, Copeland said, and he held his brother in his arms after he was shot. He witnessed gun violence all throughout his childhood, she said, and so did Malik.

“Twenty years is not a slap on the wrist,” she said. “Twenty years is not an insult to the family of Malik Garrett. ... Twenty years is longer than Craig Miller has been on this earth.”

However, Heischmidt asked for a sentence of 50 years to send a message to the public that personal feuds and petty disagreements cannot be solved with violence.

Malik’s mother, Annette Compton, declined to speak before the court. Afterward, however, she said she was glad that Miller will serve a lengthy sentence to pay the consequences for his actions, and was relieved the ordeal was over.

“I will never get the chance to hold my baby again,” Compton said. “It’s a pain that will never go away. ... Every time I think about him, I cry.”

Miller declined to make a statement.

Judge Napp said both families sustained losses; Malik’s family lost their son, and Miller’s family will also lose him to prison, she said. “Nothing I do is going to be justice in the sense that you get your boy back,” she said.

But Napp said she saw little concern in Miller’s voice for Malik’s life in his taped interview with police. “(It) does not speak to rehabilitation,” she said. “After you were told that he was dead, you simply said, ‘I just threw my life away.’ On that I agree.”

Compton said that she has been in talks with others in her neighborhood to try to find ways to stop the violence, to encourage young people to find different ways to work out problems and give them something to do and somewhere to go besides the streets. It’s called MLV, she said, for Madison, Lovejoy and Venice.

“There’s more to life than just the streets,” she said. “Follow your dreams, follow your heart. ... We’re trying to pull together and have our community as one.”

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald