Just weeks before Deshawn Randall unloaded his gun into George Miller, the two boys had been close friends.
They had met in school, hung out together every week and even recorded rap videos together. But for reasons that remain unclear, they had a falling out and a week of gun violence left one dead and the other behind bars.
On Friday, La Crosse County Circuit Judge Ramonza Gonzalez sentenced Randall, 19, to life in prison but left open the possibility for release after 25 years.
Randall shot the 17-year-old Central High School senior on the morning of Aug. 21 after a confrontation outside 1313-1317 Redfield St. According to witnesses, Randall’s gun jammed, and Miller ran.
Randall went the other way, cleared his gun, then chased Miller into a supply yard off Green Bay Street, where witnesses heard another volley of shots.
Miller died at the scene with 11 gunshot wounds to the chest, stomach, thigh, wrist and arm.
“He assassinated George Miller in broad daylight in front of witnesses,” said District Attorney Tim Gruenke. “Why that had to happen I don’t know …. after the gun jams and they go their separate ways, why he had to chase him down like that, threaten other people and shoot him while he’s lying (on the ground) is another level of evil.”
Miller’s family asked how Randall could have killed a boy who just weeks earlier was one of his best friends.
“He invited you into my home. He fed you, he clothed you,” said Valerie Thomas, adding that her son disobeyed her by continuing to befriend Randall. “All I want to know is, 'Why George?'”
Thomas asked the judge to deny Randall the possibility of parole, the only discretion available in the sentence since he pleaded guilty to first-degree homicide.
“God says I have to forgive you, but right now I can’t,” she said. “You had a choice not to kill George. But you made sure he was dead.”
Miller’s death marked the city’s first homicide in two years but the sixth shooting in just over a week. A father and son, Paul Thomas Sr. and Paul Thomas Jr., were injured in separate shootings in the Washburn neighborhood.
Randall told police that Miller and the younger Thomas had shot at him when he was riding in a friend’s car.
Gruenke said there conflicting statements about the shootings and no evidence to support Randall’s version. He questioned why Randall would continue returning to an area where people were trying to kill him.
“It’s pretty clear Deshawn is in the middle of this,” Gruenke said, adding that he made no effort to get out of the situation or to ask police for help. “Somebody’s doing the shooting, and Deshawn is the one who puts himself in all these areas.”
Randall’s attorney, Michael Covey, said both boys were caught up in a gang schism involving older, “extraordinarily bad people” and that Randall, who he described as “a 19-year-old going on 15” lacked the conflict resolution skills to handle the situation.
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“Knowing that he had been shot at, in the heat of that argument, Deshawn just lost it,” Covey said.
Covey told the court Randall grew up in extreme poverty and dysfunction. His father was in prison for most of his life. His mother used candles to light their home because the electricity was shut off. She lost custody of him as a toddler, when he knocked over one of the candles and set the home on fire.
Debbora Washington said she raised her grandson as best she could.
“I know what he did wrong,” she said. “But my grandson is a good kid.”
When it was his turn to speak, Randall sat silently for more than 20 seconds before conferring with Covey.
“I know sorry won't cut it, but I’m very sorry for what I did,” he eventually told the court. “That day was not who I was, what I did. … I took a good life, and I ruined my own.”
Covey said later his client was scared and ashamed and unable to express himself but wanted to apologize.
Gonzalez decried the culture in cities where police don’t solve crimes and people take justice into their own hands.
“This is not Milwaukee. This is not Chicago,” she said. “Our law enforcement takes these situations seriously, takes the death of every person personally.”
Yet in the week before Miller died, they were stonewalled in trying to solve the shootings. Gonzalez chastised the people who failed to cooperate with police.
“They bear a piece of the responsibility for what happened to George,” Gonzalez said. “It was this culture of 'we can take care of business ourselves. We don’t need you.' How did that work out for you, Deshawn?”
“Not well,” Gonzalez repeated.
With credit for time served in jail, Randall can petition the court after Aug. 21, 2040, for parole. He would have to convince a judge that he is not a danger to society. That judge could deny his release and extend the time until he could again petition for release.
"My job today is not to exact retribution, because retribution won’t bring George back. My job is to do justice," Gonzalez said. "I think that is justice for today."