A murder case derailed his redemption story. Years later, it was dropped.

Five years ago, Kenneil Cole’s friends speculated only half in jest that he might one day become the mayor of D.C. His story was compelling: his mother died when he was a youth, he was homeless and he had spent time in juvenile detention for robbery. But he worked hard, graduating from Delaware State University and parlaying an internship with the D.C. attorney general’s office focused on community engagement into a full-time job. He captivated audiences as he spoke of overcoming juvenile incarceration and turning his life around.

Now 29, Cole said he is struggling to find fulfilling work. He spends his free time riding his bike or listening to music alone inside his Southwest D.C. apartment. Lately, he’s found solace in feeding the birds near Buzzard Point.

Everything changed on June 25, 2018 — the day Cole got into a deadly altercation with an acquaintance, 24-year-old Keon Wallace, who Cole was letting stay in the Southeast D.C. home he’d inherited from his mother as Wallace similarly took steps to leave behind a troubled past.

Cole said he tried to evict Wallace that day and feared for his life when Wallace shoved a gun in his face. Prosecutors alleged Cole fired 11 shots into Wallace’s body, five of which struck his head. They charged him with first-degree murder.

But in February, after Cole had spent a year and a half behind bars and another three under court supervision, prosecutors moved to dismiss the case. Police said prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. decided they could not overcome his claims of self-defense.

Two young men were on paths to success. Now one is dead, the other charged with his murder.

The resolution has left no one satisfied. Though he’s relieved that the charges were dropped, Cole said his life has been derailed as he struggles to rebuild his reputation as a community leader. Wallace’s family members said they are furious that prosecutors dismissed the case.

“I wanted this to go to trial so more can come out. How are they then going to come back and tell us they couldn’t prosecute because it was self-defense?” said Wallace’s older sister, Latressa Wallace. “We will never be at peace. The system failed to give us justice.”

Cole was a student at Delaware State University when he first met Wallace in the summer of 2016. D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who had helped Cole land an internship in the office of then-D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, took Wallace and others to see Cole’s dorm. The trip was meant to give at-risk youths a chance to see firsthand what the world outside D.C.’s streets could offer.

“We basically were telling him, ‘this is what changing your life and success looks like, you have all these opportunities,’” Cole recalled.

The youngest of five children who grew up in D.C., Cole was already considered a success story. As an intern in Racine’s office, he had helped create — and was the first recipient of — the “Right Direction” award, given annually to District youths who have overcome challenges and positively impacted their communities. He lectured young men at the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, the same detention facility where he was held as a juvenile.

Soon Wallace, who was similar in age to Cole and had faced criminal charges in the past, including marijuana possession, threats to do bodily harm and unlawful entry, began making small strides of his own. He enrolled in a city government program for unemployed youths focused on violence interruption and connecting people from Southeast D.C. to city services.

Then one Saturday in May 2018, Cole said that Wallace appeared outside of Cole’s family home, claiming his girlfriend had put him out. He needed a place to stay. Cole said he reluctantly agreed.

The roommate relationship quickly deteriorated. Within days of Wallace moving in, the two disagreed over sharing the space, Cole said, adding that Wallace often brought friends to the home without permission.

On the night of June 24, 2018, the two attended a mutual friend’s party, where Cole said Wallace began acting “hostile” toward him. A few hours afterward, Cole said he texted Wallace, asking him to move out.

Cole said Wallace arrived at his house with a friend before dawn the following day. He said he reiterated his request for Wallace to leave, and Wallace reached into a bag and put a gun to his head.

“I was begging him, ‘Please, please, I don’t want to fight,’” Cole recalled. “He told me he was going to kill me and my girlfriend.”

What happened next would be the subject of a legal battle for years to come.

Cole said he wrestled the gun away and gave it to Wallace’s friend, who took it outside.

Janani Iyengar, an assistant U.S. attorney assigned to the case, argued in court that Cole and Wallace then began to struggle again, and using another gun, Cole shot Wallace in the shoulder.

Cole declined to comment on who owned the second firearm, which was never recovered by investigators, pointing to guidance from his attorney.

Cole’s girlfriend told a grand jury that Wallace was screaming at her during the altercation, and Cole was trying to protect her, authorities said in court. Iyengar said that after Wallace was shot in the initial wrestling match, he fell on top of the girlfriend, crying out he had been shot.

The prosecutor said that the girlfriend told the grand jury that Cole pulled Wallace off her and threw him to the floor, and that Wallace was curled in a fetal position when Cole shot him again. Prosecutors alleged that Cole fired 10 more shots at Wallace while he was lying prone, according to a transcript of a court hearing.

The girlfriend’s full name was not in court records, and Cole declined to identify her so a Washington Post reporter could attempt to reach her.

Cole said he was so afraid during the altercation that he can’t remember how many times he pulled the trigger. But he said he remembers running away “to the fastest thing that made me feel safe.” He got into his car and fled to his aunt’s house.

Police found Wallace dead inside Cole’s home at about 1:44 a.m. on June 25.

Six hours later, Cole turned himself in to the police. An officer testified that Cole showed up at the station in a panicked state, and that vomit was found on the driver’s side of the car.

“I can tell you I was scared for my life,” Cole said. “It’s very traumatizing to this day. And it was never something I wanted to do.”

Milton C. Lee, the D.C. Superior Court judge initially assigned to the case, cast doubt on Cole’s claims of self-defense at his July 2018 preliminary hearing and ordered him to be held until trial. The judge suggested that Cole, despite signs of progress, “did not evolve completely” from the life that led him to juvenile incarceration.

Cole moved between the D.C. jail and a federal facility in Rappahannock, Va., until a new judge, Neil Kravitz, took over the case in January 2020, as part of the regular, two-year calendar rotation among judges in D.C. Superior Court.

At a hearing before Kravitz the next month on whether Cole should continue to remain held, prosecutors and defense attorneys sparred over whether the case was self-defense or a coldblooded killing.

Podcast: When is it self-defense?

Iyengar noted that Wallace “sustained 10 gunshots after that first shot had been fired during the struggle,” according to a transcript, adding that the number of wounds “completely undercuts any potential self-defense claim that can be made here.” She added there was no evidence that Wallace was assaulting or striking Cole’s girlfriend after he fell.

Cole’s attorney, James King, then of the District’s Public Defender Service, countered that the girlfriend also testified that she was screaming out for help after Wallace fell on top of her, which prompted Cole to fire more shots at Wallace.

Kravitz said there was enough new evidence to show that the first gunshot was fired in self-defense, and it was unlikely a jury would find Cole guilty of first-degree murder. But he said jurors could convict Cole of second-degree murder or manslaughter.

“Of all those outcomes, the one that is most likely is voluntary manslaughter while armed,” Kravitz said, adding the shooting “was still an extreme act of violence.”

Then, after reading numerous letters from Cole’s supporters about his character — including a senior attorney in the District who once worked in Racine’s office — Kravitz released Cole from jail into high-intensity court supervision, ruling that he was not a risk to the community.

“I started crying,” Cole recalled. “Judge Kravitz was the one to say, ‘Something isn’t right here, and we need to take another look.’”

With Cole’s trial set for this June, a new prosecutor and lead attorney were assigned to the case. In February — by which time a third judge, Maribeth Raffinan, had inherited the case — prosecutors alerted the court they had decided to drop the charges.

Patricia Hartman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office, declined to comment on the decision to drop the case. Paris Lewbel, a spokesman for D.C. police, said in a statement that police understood “the United States Attorney’s Office dismissed the case because they did not believe they could overcome claims of self-defense,” but detectives had thoroughly investigated the killing.

Latressa Wallace, Wallace’s older sister, said she still knows little about her brother’s relationship with Cole outside of what was revealed in court hearings. She has a litany of unanswered questions: What happened to the second gun? And why didn’t Cole call the police after the shooting if he was protecting himself?

“I wish I had more answers. I’m just going off what people said at this point,” Wallace said, adding, “None of this adds up to self-defense. I’m not even a lawyer or a prosecutor and I can see that.”

Cole said he has had difficulty adjusting to life since his arrest. The murder charge was dismissed without prejudice, meaning prosecutors could refile at any time. He said he sympathizes with Wallace’s family, though he feels he did what he had to do.

“They still lost a loved one. And I know how it feels to lose a loved one,” he said.

Standing on the roof of his apartment building this spring, Cole wondered aloud whether he could still become a champion of juvenile justice reform in the District. He said he called New Beginnings Youth Development Center after his case was dismissed but has not been invited back to mentor the young men there.

“I’m still the same Kenneil,” he said.

Cole’s oldest brother sold his family’s four-bedroom house in Southeast, once a hangout spot for Cole’s large circle, while he was in jail. He said his old friends have moved on, and that he attends therapy weekly. He lives along with a cat inside his Southwest apartment, no longer attends parties and deleted thousands of followers from his social media.

“Coming back to a society that views him differently can have a further debilitating effect on the psyche,” said Andreea Matei, a policy associate with the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute. She added that prospective employers often view arrests in the same light as a conviction.

Cole said that he has been turned away from jobs with DoorDash, Instacart, FedEx and Compass Coffee. He once thought he might have a career in policy and law. Last year, he was able to secure a low-level job in the transportation industry.

“I can never forget Judge Lee saying ‘I must not have evolved completely,’ like he knew what was happening in that house,” Cole said. “But I can change what I do — my mind-set. And maybe that’s enough.”

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