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STANDING UP

Living with threats, making peace with the past

Raised not to snitch, Davien Graham is asked to set fears of retaliation aside and testify against the former classmate whose gunshots left him in a wheelchair.

November 19, 2012|Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times

A whirring mechanical lift raised Davien Graham's wheelchair to the witness stand in Department X on the fourth floor of the Los Angeles County courthouse in Alhambra.

Pain burned at the base of his spine.

His eyes met Jimmy Santana's for the first time since the shooting. He thought Santana seemed much smaller sitting at the defense table than he had with the gun in his hand. In his baggy blue jail uniform, he looked like a child.

Two months earlier, on Jan. 12, 2008, Davien had been gunned down as he rode his bike in front of his church, a bystander in a gang war that had raged in Monrovia for two years.

He recognized Santana as the shooter. They had gone to school together. Still, Davien was afraid to identify him to police. He had been raised by a father and an uncle who were Crips, who taught him that victims don't snitch.

But Davien had shunned gangs for a Christian life, and believed lying was wrong. So when asked by detectives, he had circled Santana's photo in a lineup of mug shots.

Now he was being asked to set aside fears of retaliation and testify.

Staring at Santana, Davien said the first thing he remembered telling his family after the shooting was, "I forgive the person who did this to me."

Santana stared back, appearing unmoved.

Sitting in his wheelchair, legs paralyzed, Davien could see Santana's mother in the gallery, a small woman with a strained face. A group of young people lounged behind her.

Maybe they were in the car with Jimmy that day.

Police never caught the getaway driver.

The prosecutor asked a question, addressing Davien as John Doe, an effort to protect his identity. It didn't matter. Everyone involved in the case knew Davien.

"Do you see the man who shot you here in court today?"

"On the right side of the courtroom, and he's wearing a blue uniform," Davien said.

That was all the judge needed to hear. He ordered Santana to stand trial. Davien was free to go.

But he didn't feel free.

Sheriff's investigators said he wasn't at risk, and his family didn't need protection. But he didn't trust the Sheriff's Department. The sheriff had sent a task force to Monrovia to stop the gang violence. They dropped warnings at gangsters' homes.

His uncle got one. So did Davien.

That upset him. Unlike his uncle, Davien had never joined a gang.

They must think I'm a gangster who got shot as payback.

As Davien left court, the judge ordered two deputies to escort him to the parking lot, just in case.

***

Davien knew his biggest hurdle lay ahead: testifying at Santana's trial.

As the case dragged on, Davien felt as if he was doing time, waiting. He began to believe that his aunt and uncle, Joni and Terry Alford, resented caring for him, especially when he bumped into their furniture or urinated in his shabby wheelchair.

They didn't seem to fear for his safety. Sometimes when they ran errands, they would leave him alone in the car, where he felt trapped and exposed.

Davien wanted to put the trial behind him. He wanted out of Monrovia. He decided the best way out was to finish high school and make it to college.

In September, he returned to Monrovia High; back among friends, he thrived. He almost forgot about the trial. Then one day some guys drove by his house, shouting threats. It wasn't clear if the message was meant for Davien or for his uncle.

Some time later, Davien was called to the principal's office. Sheriff's deputies were waiting. They told him they had intercepted a threatening message in gang code at the county jail. He apparently was being targeted.

We're taking you home to grab some things, the deputies said. You can stay in school, but not with your family. You're being relocated.

Back at the house, his aunt watched him pack. Deputies could not say where he was going, or for how long.

"It's messed up," Davien said, trembling. "Not only did he take my legs away from me, now he's trying to take my whole life."

Deputies took Davien to stay with a teacher the officers knew.

Davien felt safer. But he still worried, especially about his brothers at home. One of them had started working at Calvary Grace, the church where Davien was shot.

::

Over the next three years, as the sheriff's task force tamped down the gang war, Davien's case passed to a new public defender, a new prosecutor and six different judges.

Davien graduated from high school and moved from Monrovia to attend college in Fullerton. He learned to get around in his wheelchair, and had more surgeries than he could remember to deal with the bullet fragments inside his body.

One day last fall, as he was preparing for exams, Davien arrived at his apartment to find waiting sheriff's deputies and a detective he had grown to trust, Scott Schulze. The trial was starting Jan. 26, 2012. They handed him a subpoena. He was startled and upset.

He had agreed to testify. Why were they acting as if they had to force him, surprising him at his apartment with his friends?

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