On Fourth of July weekend in 2008, Don "Dunn" Hardge, an 18-year-old member of Dallas's DFW Mafia gang, stashed his AK-47 in his friend's trunk and walked into an Oak Cliff club. It was a sticky night, made stickier by the presence of nearly 200 sweaty teenage bodies packed into the club. Hardge, wearing an undershirt, baggy shorts and red-and-black Air Force 1's, arrived not long before things got out of hand.
"Nine times out of 10, you're going to a party, there's going to be trouble," Hardge said at a hearing in Dallas County Court on Friday, where he was to be sentenced for his actions that night. That, he said, was why he brought his weapon -- one choice in a series of decisions that lead him to that courtroom, where he sat wearing a gray-striped jail uniform and handcuffs as his family watched him testify.
The "trouble" Hardge referenced started with fighting in the club. The bouncer kicked everyone out, and the crowd spilled into the street. Shots rang out as cars peeled off and people scattered. While everyone was running away, Hardge said, a group ran toward the club, shooting into the crowd.
Hardge ran to his friend's car to pick up the AK-47. He fired in the direction of the gunfire.
"I wasn't thinking," Hardge said, recalling the decision to grab his gun rather than run.
Amidst the chaos, 15-year-old Juanita Payne was struck and killed by a bullet. The bullet hasn't been conclusively tied to Hardge's gun, but it hasn't been ruled out, either.
"It was something to have as a youngster, and it was cheap," Hardge said of the gun, which he bought for $50 from a crackhead. " He remembers squeezing off three shots in the direction of the gunfire. Faced with evidence that 24 shots were fired from his gun, he said, "It all happened so fast; I don't remember."
After the shooting, a grand jury indicted Hardge, now 21, for murder, but the charge was dropped when he plead guilty to engagement in organized criminal activity. He acknowledged that he had taken Xanax earlier that night, and that the drug frequently impaired his memory and changed his mood. Hardge said he does not believe it was one of his shots that killed Payne because he did not see anyone in front of him. But if it was his bullet, he said, he would tell her family, "if I can take it back, I would."
"I want to apologize to [Judge Thompson] for even being in this courtroom," he said.
Hardge's 3-year-old daughter attended the hearing. He pleaded that he wanted "to be a father to my little girl. She really don't know who I am ... I want to get out, my GED ... I want to get my barber's license." His mother, cousins, uncle, daughter, and his daughter's mother came to the hearing to support Hardge, who had gained weight and added tattoos to his face since his arrest.
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The family of the teenage victim didn't address the court, so it was up to prosecutors and police to provide the counterweight to Hardge's family's pleadings. A Dallas gang officer, who'd come in contact with Hardge several times on the streets of Oak Cliff, testified that his most recent tattoos show ongoing loyalty to his gang. The gang unit has found the term "Triple D" inscribed across his cheek, to be affiliated with the DFW Mafia, though Hardge claimed the marking simply signified the city of Dallas.
Prosecutor Dewey Mitchell requested that Hardge get the maximum sentence: 20 years. The judge went a little lighter, sentencing Hardge to 16 -- a number that, according to Mitchell, will be noted by other local gang members, who track judges' decisions in gang-related cases.
"This court has the ability to send a message," he said.
The court should get another chance soon: Another teen, who's been in custody for three years, still awaits sentencing on assault charges from the same night.