Newall: After watching her family die, a grieving daughter keeps her promise
The moment for Jessica Nunez had come. She was about to take the stand to testify against the man who she believes destroyed her family. She and her sister Laura had been working with their parents and aunt that night in 2011 in the family bodega in West Philadelphia. Two gunmen burst in for the contents of the cash register. They spared only Jessica and Laura.
The moment for Jessica Nunez had come.
She was about to take the stand against the man who she believes destroyed her family. She and her sister, Laura, had been working with their parents and aunt that night in 2011 in the family bodega in West Philadelphia. Two gunmen burst in for the contents of the cash register. They spared only Jessica and Laura.
For five years, Jessica prayed for strength. For five years, she had held on to those memories. For this day. She had promised to bring the killers to justice. Now, here she was, waiting in a small court anteroom, and she was shaking. The courtroom door opened.
For five years, Jessica had held on to the good memories.
"They're what kept me alive," Jessica, 25, told me Friday during the murder trial of Ibrahim Muhammed and Nalik Scott, who face the death penalty in the killings. Attorneys for both men are arguing mistaken identity -- and that Muhammed, who was off his medication for schizophrenia, gave a false confession.
Her father, Porfirio Nunez, so sweet and funny. Every single day he'd dance and sing in the store. Always, he'd dedicate his favorite - the Sinatra standard "I Only Have Eyes for You" - to his wife, Carmen.
Romeo and Juliet: That's how the Nunez family describes Porfy and Carmen. They met at church in their hometown of Monción in the Dominican Republic. Porfy, who had studied psychology at the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, took a job at Carmen's father's grocery to be close to his love.
As newlyweds, they wore T-shirts emblazoned with each other's faces. When Jessica was born, they made a new shirt, putting their faces together and baby Jessica on the back.
Porfy immigrated to the United States in 1992, becoming a citizen and working in bodegas in New Jersey and New York before buying Lorena's Grocery at 50th and Parrish Street in 2007. Porfy cleaned the store up. He ran tabs for those who needed them and hired down-on-their-luck neighbors to sweep the sidewalk. He brought life to the corner.
"They were a light in the neighborhood - a light that was lost that will never come back," testified William McGill, a neighborhood block captain.
Porfy brought his family to Philadelphia. His extended family followed - to work in the store.
For five years, Jessica has held close her favorite photo. She snapped it one afternoon in the store the month before the murders. Porfy had been dancing.
"OK, photo shoot," Jessica announced, through the cash-register window, the same view from which she'd soon watch her family die.
Porfy and Carmen posed. Porfy held his wife against his chest. Carmen hugged her husband's waist. They closed their eyes and smiled.
Taking the stand, Jessica tried not to make eye contact with her family. She worried that the tears would flow and the words would not. She knew her family would be suffering, hearing her explain the details, especially her younger brother, Moises.
Every day, Jessica's family filled the court.
Elizabeth Sánchez, who is 31, forever blames herself for not noticing what she now feels was a premonition that her mother, Porfy's sister, Lina Sánchez, had when she called, minutes before the killers came, to tell her grandchildren she loved them.
Marvin Nunez, who is 41, was scheduled off that night by Porfy, his older brother. He had an odd feeling that day, and visited the store several times, leaving minutes before.
Edgar Sánchez, who is 21 and a sweet, sensitive kid interested in photography, works alongside Uncle Marvin. On good days, the work keeps Edgar from grief. On bad days, he cannot stop imagining the final moments of his mother, Lina. On the worst day, a woman unhappy with the price of a bag of chips yelled at him: "This is why they killed your family!"
Every day, more than a dozen members of Jessica's family wait in the court hallway to comfort her and Laura, who, as witnesses, are sequestered in a private room. They suffer the indignities of a murder trial. The horror of the testimony. The smiles on the faces of the men they believe killed their loved ones. The loud voices of the defense attorneys echoing in the hall during one break as they celebrated points they believed they scored during Jessica's testimony.
Some family members, like her grandfather, Angel, and grandmother, Maria, speak little English. They sit listening to words they don't understand. And they weep.
They are a family five years into unimaginable grief. Up on the stand, Jessica tried to get people to imagine that pain.
In a quiet, quavering voice that carried so much heartbreak and determination, she testified how Scott held her and her sister captive by the cash register, shooting their father when he rushed to help. And how Muhammed, she said, executed her mother and aunt behind the deli counter, then killed her father.
And after the shooting stopped and the killers fled, she said through tears, "I went to see my parents."
She told of her promise - how that was all she had left: that promise. And how, after the murders, she cut her hair to disguise herself and worked in a series of neighborhood bodegas, hoping the killers would walk through the door.
For nearly five hours, this strong woman, who inherited her father's love of music and who dreams of being an R&B star, endured cross-examination. She never looked away from the men charged with killing her parents. When they smiled at her, her resolve only grew, she said.
In recounting unimaginable horror, she showed unshakable courage.
When she was done, she walked off the stand and returned to the small room where her sister waited and collapsed into Laura's arms. She seemed to sob forever.
For five years, she held on to those awful memories.
"Now," she said, "I won't have to."
Jessica Nunez had kept her promise.