Public Safety

Family angry over plea deal for man who fatally shot two 18-year-olds in Cedar Rapids

Andre Richardson confers Friday with attorneys Sarah Hradek (left) and Johnson County Chief Public Defender Peter Persau
Andre Richardson confers Friday with attorneys Sarah Hradek (left) and Johnson County Chief Public Defender Peter Persaud after the conclusion of his plea hearing in Linn County District Court in Cedar Rapids. Richardson, charged with fatally shooting Royal Abram and Matrell Johnson in 2019, pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of second degree murder, in addition to other charges. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — A Cedar Rapids man’s admission Friday that he killed two teenagers and wounded two more last summer outside a southwest side smoke shop drew outrage from families and friends of the victims, who said the deal to which he pleaded is too lenient.

They worried that, under a plea agreement, Andre Richardson, 27, might serve only 35 years in prison for shooting and killing Royal Abram and Matrell Johnson, both 18, on May 18, 2019.

“He took two lives,” Ethel Brown, mother of Royal Abram, said after the hearing in an interview with The Gazette outside the Linn County Courthouse. “I’m an advocate for the death penalty. (Linn County Attorney) Jerry Vander Sanden should have fought for me.”

Brown said Vander Sanden didn’t speak to all the victims’ families at the same time about terms of the plea deal — essentially playing them off against each other.

“He told each of us, ‘You’re the one holding out.’ ... He gave a false impression,” she said.

There were about 30 people outside the courthouse after the hearing Friday upset about the plea agreement. Some others displayed signs of “Justice for Royal” and “Justice for Matrell.”

Addison Hawk, 28, of Cedar Rapids, said his mom and Brown were best friends. He knew Abram since he was born and remembered holding him as a baby.

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“All we want is justice and fairness,” Hawk said. “Ever since Abram died, there’s been a cloud over the city. There’s no nice days.”

Brown had filed an emergency injunction asking the court to not allow the hearing because she and other family members hadn’t been consulted about the plea.

In the motion, Brown also asked that the plea be delayed because limited seating in the courtroom kept family and the public from attending.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Ian Thornhill said there wasn’t any provisions that allows a member of the public to intervene in a plea agreement. He denied the motion and continued with the hearing.

Seating in the courtroom was limited to provide for social distancing and because the courthouse isn’t open more broadly to the public due to the novel coronavirus crisis, in accordance with an Iowa Supreme Court order.

There was seating for family in an additional courtroom, where they could watch a livestream. The public also could also watch a livestream carried by the news media.

In the deal, Richardson pleaded to two counts of second-degree murder, attempted murder and willful injury causing serious injury. He also pleaded to one count each of intimidation with a dangerous weapon and possession of a firearm as a felon.

Vander Sanden said at sentencing the second-degree murder, attempted murder and willful injury sentences will run concurrently for 50 years. The two counts of willful injury would run concurrently for 10 years and consecutively to the 50 years, totaling 60. The remaining counts totaling 15 years would run consecutively to 60 for a total of 75 years.

Vander Sanden, after the hearing, said Richardson won’t be eligible for parole after the 35 mandatory years in prison until he earns so many program and good time credits. Looking at the Iowa Department of Corrections sentencing chart, Richardson may not be eligible for parole until he serves another 18 or more years on top of the mandatory 35, Vander Sanden said.

The county attorney also said he wouldn’t have agreed to the plea deal if the families hadn’t approved of it.

He did talk to the family members individually, he said, based on schedule conflicts. But he said he did not mislead them about the plea.

“If she (Brown) would have told me she was against it, I wouldn’t have,” Vander Sanden said. “I talked to her about three times.”

Richardson, during the plea, admitted to fatally shooting Abram and Johnson without justification. He also admitted to shooting Booker McKinney and Kayla Panos-Blackcloud, both now 20, of Cedar Rapids, and had intended to cause their deaths without justification.

Richardson also admitted to having the firearm and illegally possessing it as a felon.

A criminal complaint showed Richardson on a store surveillance video firing a series of shots from a .45-caliber handgun, even after it jammed several times, at a black Buick Rendezvous outside the Iowa Smoke Shop at 70 Kirkwood Court SW.

When officers arrived about 1:20 a.m., they found four people in the Rendezvous. Abram and Johnson were fatally shot in the back seat. McKinney and Panos-Blackcloud were seriously injured in the front.

Richardson was identified by witnesses and shown in the video, authorities said. He fled before officers arrived.

Richardson was found by authorities two days later, hiding in a garage.

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Vander Sanden, during the plea hearing, said a loaded 9 mm handgun was found in the back floorboard between Abram and Johnson, but there was no evidence it had been displayed or fired during the shooting. He said police never established a motive for this “senseless murder.”

Richardson had planned to claim self-defense. Because of the gun found near the victims, a jury may not have convicted Richardson of first-degree murder, Vander Sanden said after the hearing.

“Honestly, no number of years could provide justice to the families but this will essentially be a life sentence for him,” Vander Sanden said.

Also under the plea, Richardson must provide a remorseful statement to the victims and their families and give up his right to appeal, Vander Sanden said.

Judge Thornhill said he would tentatively accept the plea pending sentencing, when he would review the presentencing report and hear from the victims and their families.

If Thornhill doesn’t accept the plea then, Richardson would be free to withdraw it and the case would proceed to a trial or another plea deal.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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