crime scene
City officials have said they are laser-focused on combating youth violence. Image Credit: Pexels

Washington: A 16-year-old girl was charged with fatally stabbing another 16-year-old girl outside a McDonald's on a busy D.C. nightlife corridor this weekend in a fight a police detective said stemmed from an argument about "sweet-and-sour sauce," as the city continues its struggle to quell youth violence.

Naima Liggon, the slain teen from Waldorf, Md., was the 13th person younger than 18 killed this year in Washington, and her accused attacker represents one of hundreds of cases in which minors have been charged with committing a crime of violence.

Both of those numbers have increased since the same time last year, creating what the city's mayor has deemed an emergency among the city's children and teenagers. Homicides overall are up 26 percent in the District over this time in 2022.

"At the end of the day, someone is dead over a dispute over sauce," D.C. Superior Court Judge Sherri Beatty-Arthur said, as she ordered the suspect held until another hearing Friday.

City officials have said they are laser-focused on combating youth violence. Last month, the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation that expanded pretrial detention for youths charged with virtually any dangerous or violent crime. In her own legislative proposal, which still could be considered in the fall, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) wanted to allow judges to detain youths for their own protection - signaling the lengths she is willing to go to stop the bloodshed.

All summer, D.C. government officials have touted programming designed to keep youths safe and engaged while school is out. The mayor told community members in June that the city had 13,000 slots for camp and 14,000 places for youth employment. The U Street corridor is among the areas city officials say will see a curfew crackdown starting Sept. 1 to keep youths under 17 off the streets overnight. A nightlife task force designed to reduce violence had been focusing on the neighborhood.

Still, the last weekend of summer before school started Monday in D.C. was especially violent. Four blocks east and 22 hours before Liggon was killed, police said, an 18-year-old was fatally shot. The day before that, another 18-year-old was killed, this time in Southeast Washington.

On Friday, police said they arrested a 16-year-old and charged him in three armed carjackings and seven armed robberies over two days last week. When they caught the teen, police said, he had four firearms.

At a hearing in D.C. Superior Court on Monday, Detective Brendan Jasper testified that Liggon's stabbing emanated from an argument over "sweet-and-sour sauce" among three girls outside a McDonald's near 14th and U Streets NW just after 2 a.m. Jasper testified that Liggon and another girl began hitting a 16-year-old, who security camera footage showed did not initially fight back.

But as Liggon and her friend tried to get in a vehicle, the other 16-year-old "lunged" at Liggon with a 7-inch pocketknife, stabbing her in the chest and abdomen, the detective testified. The Washington Post attended the hearing on the condition that it not identify the teen who was charged. Efforts to reach Liggon's relatives were unsuccessful.

"It's horrifying," said Sabel Harris, who chairs an Advisory Neighborhood Commission that includes U Street between 11th and 14th streets. "I walk by that McDonald's almost every single day. My mind is just reeling from this."

The 16-year-old, who was charged with second-degree murder while armed, pleaded not involved - the juvenile equivalent of not guilty. Her attorney argued in court that the girl had acted in self-defense in a fight started by the others. Prosecutors countered the fight was over when the stabbing took place.

"She was the only person who brought a knife to a fistfight," prosecutor Priscilla Guerrero said.

Police said Liggon - who they initially reported incorrectly as being 17 years old - was taken to a hospital in a private vehicle and was pronounced dead there.

Harris said statistics show crime declining over the long term, but she and her neighbors are still scared of the violence. "No matter what the data shows, it's still incredibly alarming and terrifying," she said.

Lindsey Appiah, the deputy mayor for public safety and justice, did not respond to requests for an interview sent to her office. Likewise, D.C. police did not make acting D.C. police chief Pamela A. Smith or a member of her command staff available for comment.

Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), who chairs the public safety committee and whose district includes the site of the fatal stabbing, also did not respond to an interview request.

As of July 31, a spokesperson for D.C. Attorney General Brian L. Schwalb (D) said his office had brought 253 cases in which a youth was accused of a crime of violence, a 33 percent increase from the same time last year. Over that time frame, roughly 60 percent of cases that the attorney general decided to charge were of nonviolent offenses, according to data provided by his office.

Liggon was a student at Thomas Stone High School in Charles County, Md. The principal, in a letter to parents and staff members, called her killing "a heartbreaking and tragic time" for the school community and said grief counselors would be present Monday, adding more tension to the first day of classes for the 1,100 students in Southern Maryland.

A school system spokeswoman said neither the principal nor other staff members would be made available for interviews on Monday.

"I don't know what the solution is," said Harris, the ANC chair. "I just wish there was more transparency and more accountability taken with people like the mayor and the council to say, 'This is not working.'"