PHILADELPHIA – Minutes after learning a mother had also died from a Philadelphia carjacking crash that killed three of her children, a teen suspect blurted out a lament during a brief court hearing Wednesday.
“I’m going to ask for forgiveness from the family,” Johnathan Rosa, 19, told the judge as he waived his right to a hearing in the quadruple murder case.
Rosa and co-defendant Cornelius Crawford, 23, are charged with carjacking a real estate agent as she left a showing in her luxury SUV. The agent was punched in the face and sexually assaulted, allegedly by both men, before the speeding vehicle blew a tire and crashed into a family selling fruit for their church.
Keisha Williams, 34, died of her injuries last week and will be buried Thursday. Her children – 15-year-old Keiearra Williams, 10-year-old Thomas Joseph Reed and 7-year-old Terrance Moore – died the day of the July 25 crash and were buried as their mother clung to life in a hospital.
“If the car zigs left instead of right, it’s a different case,” said defense lawyer C.P. Mirarchi III, who represents Crawford and offered remorse on his client’s behalf. He wants to know if Crawford was under the influence of drugs or alcohol that day.
“Hijacking the car to make a few dollars can sound like a good idea if you’re high,” Mirarchi said.
Crawford had been out on parole for a few months, working odd jobs, after being incarcerated at age 16 for robbery, relatives said. He earned a GED certificate in prison, but struggled as many do to find work as a convicted felon.
“He’s not the monster everybody says,” Vonda Bowser, an aunt, said after the hearing. “He was a kid that got into trouble, yes. But he wasn’t malicious, like they make him out to be. My brother and his stepmom raised him the best they could. Kids make mistakes.”
Both young men have given statements to police, and Rosa’s lawyer, Chris Warren, has said his client will cooperate fully and seek a plea. But the second-degree murder charges do not carry the death penalty, and it’s unclear if prosecutors will be negotiate a deal that would bring anything less than the maximum life sentence for the crimes, which horrified the city and prompted a several-day manhunt.
“We’re not sure if any cooperation is needed or necessary,” Assistant District Attorney Brendan O’Malley said.
Williams and her family had sold refreshments weekly at the busy intersection to help her church raise funds to turn the adjacent corner lot into a playground. Former NBA star Charles Barkley learned of their deaths, and offered to pay for the childrens’ funerals.
Rosa, a high school graduate who planned to join the Marines, had only a single prior arrest, for a marijuana charge that was later expunged. He met Crawford in the neighborhood days earlier, his lawyer said.
Rosa’s cellphone was found in the stolen SUV. He initially said the phone had been stolen and was let go but surrendered the next day after speaking to his mother and pastor.
“This is aberrational conduct, to put it mildly,” Warren said of his client.
Prosecutors may call the real estate agent at Crawford’s preliminary hearing Oct. 21. She suffered broken ribs and other injuries in the crash, but has since been released from the hospital, O’Malley said.
Crawford allegedly pretended Rosa’s cellphone was a gun when the carjacking began, and he was at the wheel when the vehicle crashed, police have said.
Williams’ two surviving children, both school-age girls, have been taken in by aunts.