A young crape myrtle tree now grows right where Harry “Mike” Ainsworth lay shot and bleeding nearly two years ago on Al Schmitt’s front lawn on a normally quiet street in Algiers Point.
Schmitt said he planted the tree a few weeks after Ainsworth heard screams and ran from the corner bus stop, leaped onto a neighbor’s car, bashed the windshield in a bid to halt a carjacking and was fatally shot through the crushed glass.
On Friday morning, a caravan of Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office cars rolled past the crape myrtle, ahead of two vans full of jurors who had come to view the scene of a killing that rattled the neighborhood and the city.
Ainsworth died on the grass in front of Schmitt’s house about 7 a.m. on Jan. 25, 2012, in a shooting witnessed by his two sons. A handyman and New Orleans Police Department booster, he was quickly cast as a Good Samaritan who fell victim to a violent crime epidemic that knows no neighborhood borders.
The jurors milled silently around the spot where he fell, across Vallette Street from the International School of Louisiana, where a blue dumpster still has a round dent from where one of the bullets struck. They lingered for a while under heavy security as Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny kept watch, then returned to the vans for the drive back to the courthouse at Tulane Avenue and South Broad Street.
At the courthouse, Dagon Conner took the witness stand Friday afternoon to recount what he saw when his father was killed.
“I just noticed my dad running. I saw him beat on the windshield and then I heard a gunshot, and I remember him running to the grass and ducking down,” the eighth-grader said.
“The man who shot him turned down the corner, and we went down the street to see my dad.”
Dagon, 13, said he could give only a loose description of the shooter: black man, black cap. Others have given more specific descriptions, of a wide-faced man in a black hooded sweatshirt, but none positively identified the defendant, 20-year-old Kendall Harrison, who is on trial for murder.
Dagon’s testimony, and the crime scene visit, came on the fourth day of a trial that is expected to continue Saturday and Sunday. Friday also would have been Ainsworth’s 47th birthday.
In a case with no gun, no firm identification of Harrison and no confession to police, a “touch” DNA match from the steering wheel of Anita Hedgepeth’s Saturn Ion, the object of the carjacking, and a purported confession to a fellow inmate in Orleans Parish Prison appear to be pivotal to the state’s case.
Prosecutors Payal Patel and Alex Calenda have yet to put on DNA experts to help explain that evidence to the jury. The inmate also has not yet taken the stand.
Harrison, who was 17 at the time of the shooting, vigorously denied the killing in an interview with police a month afterward.
“Y’all have me mistaken for somebody totally different,” he told a pair of detectives. “I’m saying, ‘How could you have my DNA when I was in a totally different place?’ ”
Harrison, whose name also came up from tipsters, denied being in Algiers Point that morning. Yet two relatives, a cousin and great-aunt, said he was with them three blocks away, in the 800 block of Vallette Street, as a flurry of police cars converged on the crime scene.
At the time, Harrison appeared perfectly normal as he smoked a cigarette on the street, relatives Nyron and Rosemary Harrison said.
“We was outside with the rest of the neighborhood, watching the commotion and stuff,” Nyron Harrison said of being with his cousin that morning.
One witness, who has yet to testify, followed the suspect in his car while on the phone with a police dispatcher, heading in the direction of the house where Harrison ended up with his relatives.
Harrison’s defense attorney, Lionel “Lon” Burns, has sought to undermine the police investigation in the case. For hours Thursday, Burns grilled the lead homicide detective, Tanisha Sykes, who acknowledged that the high-profile killing was her first homicide case as a lead detective.
Sykes admitted a failure to properly document photo lineups in which a pair of witnesses identified someone else as the shooter.
Cheryl Conner, Ainsworth’s longtime girlfriend and the mother of his two boys, also testified Thursday, recalling her screaming panic as she ran down the street for her children when she came outside after the gunfire.
In one exchange, Burns sought to play up a toxicology test that found marijuana in Ainsworth’s blood. He earlier portrayed Ainsworth as an overzealous vigilante who charged into his own killing.
“Tell me about Mike’s use of drugs,” Burns said to Conner.
“Mike did not use drugs,” she responded. “Marijuana is not drugs, sir. It’s becoming legal in most states, and it’s medical.”
Another witness, Robin Mayer, testified Friday about watching a man scuffle with Hedgepeth during the attempted carjacking and about running to yell at the man before she saw Ainsworth leap onto the hood.
Mayer said Ainsworth seemed to trip and fall to the ground, but then he never got up. She tried to stop his profuse bleeding with her hand, “talking to him, saying, ‘The boys need you; please don’t die.’ ”
Ainsworth died before EMS arrived, she said. She ultimately helped police create a sketch of the suspect but couldn’t identify Harrison.
“No idea how long I was there holding my hand up under him, trying to stop the blood. It felt like forever,” Mayer said. “There were some neighbors there and his boys. Oh, God, his boys showed up. They were just crying, ‘Daddy, please, please don’t die, Daddy.’ ”
She yelled for a neighbor — Schmitt — to take them inside.
“They kept crying, saying, ‘Is my daddy going to be OK?’ ” Schmitt said outside the house Friday. “I said, ‘I don’t know. It’s up to the Lord.’ ”
Schmitt, who was the carjacking victim’s landlord, said he didn’t see the shooting, and he wasn’t asked to testify in the case.
Schmitt said Ainsworth’s boys occasionally come by on their bikes or skateboards and stop by the tree, which now stands 8 feet tall, draped in beads.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.