Andre Vincent Jr. was inside a Forestville carryout, joking with a neighborhood acquaintance. When the wordplay turned tense, Vincent, 19, tried to defuse the situation, waving off Wendell E. Jones and saying, "Ah, y'all a clown."
Thirty minutes later, as Vincent stepped to his car with a group of friends, Jones, 22 at the time, sneaked up behind him and fired six bullets into his head. As Jones walked away, court testimony would reveal, he snickered, "Who's the clown now?"
The 2004 murder was part of what law enforcement sees as an alarming trend in Prince George's County: low-"flash point" killings, in which attackers resort to deadly violence over trivial confrontations.
Police say the trend, in part, drove the sharp increase in the county's homicide count last year: 173, a record and a spike from the 148 that occurred in 2004. Twenty people have been killed in the county as of yesterday, compared with 33 by the same date in 2005.
Another such confrontation took place inside a Temple Hills liquor store in 2004, when Phillip M. Beverly, 26, politely told Edward Bell, a stranger, that he didn't have to snap the suspenders of a young woman Beverly was friends with to talk to her.
Bell, 28 then, lowered the hood of his jacket, pulled out a gun and shot Beverly to death. He started to flee but then returned and fired more rounds at the woman, who was wounded.
And outside an Oxon Hill chicken joint in 2004, Kelvin Braxton, 22, was fatally shot by Robert Garner, a 20-year-old acquaintance who became enraged after Braxton tried to shake his hand inside the restaurant.
In all three slayings, the attackers were convicted.
Although flash-point crimes have always existed, Prince George's police say they are making up an increasing proportion of homicides -- a noticeable difference from the crack-war era of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In the District, a jurisdiction with a level of violence similar to Prince George's, a large number of homicides also are the result of arguments. In Baltimore, police statistics say they are one of that community's leading homicide motives.
During the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it was common for the District to have more than 400 homicides annually, most killings happened because of drug disputes, gang activity or retaliation for earlier shootings. But between 2001 and 2004, D.C. police say, 30 percent of killings involved drugs and the next-highest amount -- 28 percent -- was attributed to arguments.
In the 169 killings Prince George's county police investigated last year (four slayings were investigated by municipal police forces), "argument" was the most prevalent motive, police said. Forty-three homicides were motivated by an argument and 36 were drug-related. The next-highest category was robberies, at 24
In 2000, Prince George's had 71 homicides, with the most common motive being drugs, accounting for 23 killings. Only five slayings that year were caused by arguments, police data show.
Dozens, perhaps more than a hundred, of such anger-fueled killings have occurred in the county in the past four years, according to police, prosecutors and Circuit Court records. Many of the victims were acquaintances of their killers. A few were intimates. Some were strangers.
Most of the attackers were teenagers or young men with handguns. The majority of the killers were not drunk or high when they attacked -- they were angry. Many became furious when they perceived that they'd been slighted in front of friends or a girlfriend.
Although they have no specific studies to point to, police, prosecutors, people who work with ex-offenders, victims rights advocates and the ex-offenders themselves said the burgeoning violence is because of a toxic mix of causes: the easy availability of handguns; a subculture, including some rap songs and videos, that celebrates violence; and a pathological need on the part of some young men for respect.
DeJuan Conaway, 32, grew up in West Baltimore and says he had a lifestyle that included violence and crime as a young man. Conaway said he was accused of shooting a man during an argument at a pickup basketball game he was watching. In March 2001, he was acquitted of attempted first-degree murder.
Conaway said he didn't like the way the victim was eyeballing him and said words to the effect of "What are you looking at?" That led to more words and the shooting, he said.
He was acquitted after the victim did not show up for court, Conaway said.
Such hair-trigger violence, Conaway said, "makes sense to you at the time when you do it. When your blood is boiling, you're not thinking. You react off impulse.
"The only thing you have when you're involved in that lifestyle is respect," Conaway said. "If you don't have respect, people will try to rob you. Your friends are watching you. They'll say, 'You let that guy disrespect you?' Then your friends might disrespect you if they see you let someone get away with [an oral slight]. Or if you're with a female, she may not want anything to do with you."
Spending a year in jail before being acquitted of attempted murder convinced him that he needed to leave the thug life behind, Conaway said.
These days, he works as a surveyor for an engineering firm by day and as a cook for a seafood restaurant by night. "I have changed my life around," Conaway said, adding that he hopes to mentor younger ex-offenders.
The problem of flash-point crime exists nationwide. In Milwaukee, for example, homicides jumped from 88 in 2004 to 122 in 2005, said Brian O'Keefe, deputy chief of the city's police department.
"A lot of it is nonsense," O'Keefe said. "One woman stabbed another because she wore a dress without asking. One gentleman was shot to death in a duplex because his son took laundry soap that didn't belong to him."
Lt. Robert Nealon, head of the homicide squad in Prince George's, said: "All these people are fighting over these stupid, little things. Now you're adding a gun to the picture, and it makes it all lethal."
Guns were used in 82 percent of last year's homicides.
"When I was a kid, a lot of these deaths would have been fistfights," said State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey. "Now they're turning into gunfights, and someone gets killed or hurt seriously."
Hubert Williams is president of the Washington-based Police Foundation, a nonprofit research and training group. "In previous generations," Williams said, "I think our tolerance level was much greater. Someone might say something, and it's ignored or it ends with a fight. But today, the gun is so prevalent, I think it's become much more acceptable in certain communities to use the weapon first and ask questions later."
Timothy A. Dimoff, a former Ohio police officer, says in his book, "Life Rage," that today's teenagers and people in their twenties and early thirties have been bombarded with violence all their lives through video games, music, music videos, television shows and mainstream movies.
"They've become desensitized to the results of violence," said Dimoff, who runs a security and investigative firm.
Time after time, that kind of senseless rage has been on display in Prince George's.
In yet another instance, two men lost their tempers, drew guns and simultaneously became a killer and a victim.
Jermaine Berry, 23, and Edward Huff, 27, were next-door neighbors for a while in the Chapel Oaks neighborhood, near Fairmount Heights. They didn't like each other.
Two dead over a dog
Huff would complain when Berry's pit bull would escape from his yard. Berry didn't like Huff parking stolen cars on the street, police said.
By last summer, Berry had moved to Hyattsville, but his family stayed in a house on Farmingdale Avenue.
On June 25, Berry returned to Farmingdale Avenue, where he ran into Huff about 4 p.m. The two started arguing over pit bulls again.
Berry pulled a .40-caliber handgun from his waistband. Huff pulled a .40-caliber from his pants. Berry fired first, police said. Huff shot back.
They chased each other through the neighborhood, firing and ducking. Both men fell about a block away, on Early Oaks Lane. Berry was dead at the scene; Huff died at a hospital.
"They shot and killed each other, basically, over a dog," said Nealon, the homicide lieutenant.
The sudden violence leaves relatives of the victims bereft and bewildered.
Phillip Beverly Sr. of Fort Washington, whose son, Phillip M. Beverly, was shot inside the Temple Hills liquor store in 2004, said it was difficult to attend the trial of assailant Edward Bell.
"It was rough, man," Beverly said. "Looking at that dude [Bell], I couldn't believe it. You kill someone for nothing?"
Bell was convicted of murder.
In yet another case, a group of teenagers and young men were playing pickup basketball on an outdoor court in Cheltenham on May 2, 2004. An argument started when one player believed that an opponent had fouled him too hard. Play resumed, but minutes later, after another hard foul, a fracas broke out.
‘Why do you have to kill them?’
Velonta E. Roye, 18 at the time, had been on the sidelines, watching the game. But he threw himself into the fight and stabbed one of the players, Darryl Duckett, 17. The attack occurred in front of Duckett's two younger brothers, who had been playing.
Duckett staggered, collapsed and died.
Roye was from Suitland; Duckett lived around the corner from the basketball court.
"Didn't know each other. They'd never even met," said Duckett's mother, Sheri S. Brooks.
"I just don't understand the mentality of our youth," Brooks said. "If you want to fight someone, fight. Why do you have to kill them?"
Duckett hadn't made his bed the day he took his brothers to the neighborhood park to play basketball.
It remains unmade. Brooks said she can't bear to change anything in his room.
Staff writer Jamie Stockwell and staff researchers Magda Jean-Louis and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.