Aleah Strawder recounted inside a packed courtroom in the Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse in Baltimore how the loss of her older sister, NyKayla Strawder, has tremendously affected her life.
Not only was NyKayla her sister, she said, but her best friend. She made her laugh. And she was a breath of fresh air.
But on Aug. 6, 2022, Baltimore Police found NyKayla, 15, suffering from a gunshot wound to the head on the porch of a home on Linnard Street near Edmondson Avenue in Southwest Baltimore. She was taken to the hospital and later pronounced dead.
Police reported that their investigation revealed that a 9-year-old boy was displaying a handgun when the weapon went off. His grandmother, April Gaskins, told investigators that she kept the firearm on the floor of the closet in the bedroom, where the child often watched TV.
“My sister was innocent,” Aleah, 14, said on Thursday at a sentencing hearing in Baltimore Circuit Court. “She did nothing wrong.”
Stating that both sides would not be pleased with his sentence but that his responsibility was to mete out justice, Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams later ordered Gaskins, 55, of Southwest Baltimore, to serve four years in prison. Williams had convicted Gaskins at a bench trial of reckless endangerment and firearm access by a minor.
“I can’t begin to understand the pain all families are going through,” Williams said. “This clearly was not an intentional act.”
But Williams described Gaskins’ conduct as cavalier, careless and reckless. He said he did not understand why she failed to take steps to safeguard access to her gun — especially when there was a child living at the house.
Assistant State’s Attorney Jennifer Brady urged the judge to hand down the maximum sentence: six years in prison.
She noted that the court had broad discretion.
Brady went through the goals of sentencing: deterrence, rehabilitation and punishment. Gaskins, she argued, had not accepted responsibility for her conduct.
“You cannot change what it is you do not acknowledge,” Brady said. “How can you be rehabilitated?”
“Your honor,” she added, “justice demands a harsh sentence in this case.”
NyKayla’s great uncle, Daniel Jarvis, described her as a protector. He spoke about the trauma associated with her loss and the difficultly in explaining what happened to younger relatives.
Her cousin, Bolon Xi’Amaru, meanwhile, lamented the fascination and fixation that young men have with guns and read statements on behalf of other loved ones.
Family members said NyKayla loved her siblings, lit up the room and expressed an eagerness to learn. She dreamed of becoming a fashion designer.
Brandon Mead, Gaskins’ attorney, asked the judge to hand down a suspended sentence and probation.
Mead described his client as a pillar of society who had no prior criminal record.
“Your honor, the reality is this was just an absolutely horrendous tragedy,” Mead said. “Miss Gaskins understands her role in it.”
Gaskins, he said, believed that her gun was unloaded. But it turned out that there was one cartridge in the chamber. He said he could not recall ever receiving as many in-depth letters of support for a client.
Mead said Gaskins had already experienced punishment. She lost her job and custody of her grandson and is on the verge of losing her home.
Next, Gaskins turned to look at NyKayla’s family members in the gallery of the courtroom and, through sobs, briefly addressed them.
“I can’t imagine,” she said. “I’m a mom, too.”
When Williams finished imposing the sentence, Mead asked him whether he would allow Gaskins to serve her time on home detention. Williams said Mead could discuss that with the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office.
“For now,” Williams said, “she’ll be taken into custody.”
Two sheriff’s deputies then escorted her out of the courtroom in handcuffs as she continued to quietly cry.