A Year Later, Staffers Still Mourn Intern

Posted November 11, 2003 at 6:51pm

Like most Capitol Hill interns, Claude Rashad McCants had big plans.

After wrapping up an internship in Rep. Wayne Gilchrest’s (R-Md.) office last year, the 25-year-old Jackson, Miss., native had planned a trip to South Africa and was preparing to apply to law school in the hope of one day improving the nation’s health care system — but McCants never had the chance to realize his dream.

On Oct. 10, 2002, as millions in and around Washington lived in fear during a spate of sniper shootings in the D.C. metro area, McCants was fatally stabbed in the neck on the street where he lived not far from the Capitol.

McCants’ killing received scant attention from the press as the area was gripped by fear of the next sniper shooting. But as his accused assailant goes on trial next week, a group of McCants’ loyal friends said they are not about to let his memory be forgotten.

“He had so many friends it was just incredible. He was a very easy person to know,” said Jelani Murrain, a former legislative correspondent for Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) who knew McCants from when they were both 11-year-olds attending the seventh grade together in Jackson.

Murrain and McCants ended up following similar paths. Upon graduating from high school, both left Jackson in 1996 to attend Hampton University in Virginia. After finishing college, both moved to Washington, D.C., to cut their teeth on politics.

Murrain, who moved to Washington several months before McCants did to take an internship in Rep. John Lewis’ (D-Ga.) office, said his friend was always willing to go the extra mile to help a friend or lend support to his community.

“I had just moved to D.C. and [McCants] had one semester to go at Hampton. I didn’t know a lot of people,” Murrain said, explaining that McCants would sometimes drive more than two-and-a-half hours just to check on his friend or help him settle in to his apartment.

“He would just come here and make sure everything was OK,” Murrain said.

Mere hours before McCants was killed, he was doing his utmost to help Murrain cope with some bad news.

“The day before [McCants] died, my father was diagnosed with cancer. He actually spent the night with me to make sure I was OK,” Murrain said.

The next morning, Oct. 10, 2002, McCants dropped Murrain off at Washington Dulles International Airport so he could fly to Atlanta to visit his ailing father.

“He called me at 6 p.m. to make sure my father was OK,” Murrain said.

But that would be the last time Murrain would ever hear his friend’s voice. At 9:15 on a rainy night, McCants would die alone in a pool of blood in the 1100 block of Fourth Street Northeast.

‘It Just Didn’t Make Sense’

Donny Williams, a Democratic staffer on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, will never forget Oct. 10, 2002 — a day that started out like any other and ended like none he had ever known.

After leaving work at around 6 p.m., Williams was enjoying a relaxing evening with McCants and other members of their social circle, talking politics and generally goofing around.

“It was just one of the funniest days I can remember. We were joking and clowning,” Williams recalled.

At one point, the two roommates took a walk to buy candy at the corner store in their Northeast neighborhood, a mostly black section of Capitol Hill McCants had deliberately chosen to call home during his stay in the nation’s capital.

“He decided he wanted to live in the inner city … he wanted to interact with the people there,” Murrain explained. “He would help the kids out with their homework. He wanted to be involved in community action. He wanted to live there and mingle with the people on a day-to-day basis.”

As the evening progressed, McCants and his roommates went their separate ways, but not long after Williams left the house to visit his girlfriend, he received a disturbing phone call from a friend who had just arrived at their house on Fourth Street.

The friend told Williams that he had seen “someone lying on the ground in a pool of blood on our street.”

Williams dashed home to find police blocking off the street.

What he didn’t immediately realize was that it was his friend and roommate lying on the pavement.

After 30 or 40 confusing minutes, a police officer approached Williams to tell him that his roommate had been stabbed.

“For the first time in my life I got completely light-headed,” Williams said. “I was like ‘What? What? What?’” Williams said, remembering that horrific moment. “We were just completely stunned. … It just didn’t make sense. The day was going perfectly. We were just having a blast of a day.”

Their other roommate, Matthew Washington, was equally stunned when he received word of his friend’s death.

Washington, who works for Rep. John Olver (D-Mass.), said he had joked with McCants earlier that evening as he was cleaning his room, but he “never could have imagined this would ever happen.”

“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it,” Washington said. “Whether it’s two minutes or 20 minutes, you always think about it.”

Williams said he is still haunted by the memories of that terrible night.

“I’m a big guy. I’m an ex-football player. I’m not accustomed to being afraid,” he confided. “I hate rainy nights now … . When it’s dark and a little too quiet, you get kind of consumed in thought.”

A System to Blame?

In retrospect, it appears that McCants’ day had taken a turn for the worse much earlier than anyone realized, though he could never have known that at the time.

On Oct. 10, 2002, the suspect charged in McCants’ murder, Eric R. Wallace, was released from custody despite a string of assault charges.

According to The Washington Post, the decision to let Wallace go free was made several days earlier by D.C. Superior Court Judge Frederick Dorsey. While Wallace had been held at St. Elizabeths Hospital for nine months, he was eventually deemed mentally unfit for trial and the charges against him were dropped.

With Dorsey citing no other option but to release Wallace — and with no appeal filed by the prosecution — Wallace, then 36, was a free man.

On Oct. 18, 2002, McCants’ Red Ford Explorer was recovered at a gas station in Oxon Hill, Md. Wallace’s fingerprints were found in the vehicle, as was a bloody knife, according to the Post’s account.

Wallace — who was arrested on Nov. 8, 2002 — is slated to be tried for the first- degree murder of McCants next week in D.C. Superior Court, though scheduling difficulties threaten to push the trial to January. He has also been charged with armed carjacking, armed robbery and carrying a deadly weapon.

McCants’ friends — several of whom are expected to testify in the upcoming trial — declined to discuss the court case.

At a hearing last December, Superior Court Judge Shellie Bowers flatly rejected Wallace’s attempt to portray the attack as an act of self defense. Wallace’s court-appointed attorney argued unsuccessfully at that hearing that Wallace was defending himself after McCants had begun kicking him with no provocation.

“This is a carjacking case,” Bowers said, according to the Post. “This is not a self- defense case.”

McCants’ slaying provoked an outcry from Members of Congress who felt the District needed to re-examine the policies regarding how it handles those who are deemed mentally incompetent for trial.

Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) became actively involved in the fight, contacting Mayor Anthony Williams (D) and others to try to bring about some changes and to make the wheels of bureaucracy turn quickly.

In December 2002, the D.C. Council approved a bill giving courts new power to temporarily commit those found mentally unfit for trial for up to 48 hours while they initiate long-term commitment for such individuals.

Never Forgotten

McCants’ friends and family are committed to making sure that he is not forgotten and didn’t die in vain.

“At the end of the day, hopefully we can find some solace in ensuring that no one else suffers to the extent that we have as a result of such a senseless act of violence,” Murrain vowed.

Following her sons’ death, Iva McCants retired from her job as an administrator with the Jackson Public School District, and she is now putting her efforts into establishing a scholarship fund in her son’s name, perhaps focusing on helping out middle-class kids in Mississippi.

Murrain noted that McCants, who was an only child, considered his mother his best friend.

Friends, it seems, were never in short supply in McCants’ life, and those who knew him best said 2002 had seemed to be a year of transformation for the 25-year-old, who loved to go rock climbing at Great Falls, Va., wrote poetry on the sly and held a black belt in tae kwon do.

Following a trip to Europe in the spring of that year, McCants returned to the states with a new sense of purpose.

“He came back really charged about life,” Murrain said, explaining that while McCants had always thought he’d end up attending medical school, upon his return he saw himself going to law school and someday working on reforming the health care system and improving the quality of care for the people of Mississippi.

“His ultimate goal was to return to Mississippi and ensure that people had access to the skills he had to provide,” Murrain said. “He was a big believer in going back home and making it a better place.”

Williams said he noticed a difference in his roommate when he returned from Amsterdam.

Before his travels, McCants was the sort of person who’d sit up on the stairs during a party observing the whole room, watching and taking in the scene, Williams said.

“When he came back, the person would sit up on the stairs was now on the couch — the most talkative person in the room,” Williams recalled. “You hear about people changing, but you never get to watch a person. … My friendship with him elevated to a completely different level.”

Washington, who first met McCants during their freshman year at Hampton University, said he has so memories of his friend it’s hard to pinpoint just a few.

A joker who would parade through the student union at Hampton flexing in a muscle shirt on a dare, a guy who could cook up a mean Cajun meal, a debater, a role model — these were all McCants, Washington said.

Washington laughed as he recalled walking through the Rayburn House Office Building one day with another friend and McCants, who expertly navigated their way through the House building’s look-alike corridors.

“My friend Chris just comes out and says, ‘You must have nothing to do. You’re just walking around Rayburn every day,’” Washington remembered with a chuckle. “It was a running joke after that. ‘What’s Rashad doing? He’s off exploring different parts of the Capitol.’”

His determination, too, set him apart from others, Washington said.

“He was persistent. … He’d accomplish whatever he set his mind to,” Washington recalled. “If he told you he’d walk up a wall, eventually he’d walk up a wall.”