The twins were OK.

LaKira Johnson could hear a doctor confirm that as she slid a wand over her bulging belly during an ultrasound. They were kicking. Their heartbeats were strong. LaKira imagined them in there playing, oblivious to the senseless shooting that had left her bleeding that night on the dirty tile floor of a carryout place.

She'd just wanted a sandwich. Five months pregnant and craving a cheesesteak, LaKira had walked from her home in Northeast Washington to Jerry Chan's restaurant on an August night. Then she heard gunfire, felt her body jerk and knew a bullet had pierced her back and burrowed through her stomach. She doesn't remember feeling pain, only fear.

"I don't want to die," the 21-year-old Wal-Mart cashier thought again and again. And then, worrying about the two girls she was carrying, "I don't want them to die."

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Now she lay in the hospital feeling relieved as doctors assured her that the bullet missed her uterus. She would lose her kidney and part of her intestines, but the twins would be OK.

Then three days into her hospital stay, LaKira went to the bathroom, saw blood and knew that was no longer true.

Gun violence is such a constant in Washington, D.C., that it is not measured in bullets fired but in lives claimed. Normally that is a clear-cut number.

But what happened to LaKira's pregnancy raises a complicated set of legal and moral questions about what constitutes a life when taken by a stranger. Does it begin when a newborn can survive on its own? Does it start with a first breath? Does it matter that the twins were already loved?

LaKira knew it was too early for her daughters to be born, but there was no stopping what had already started. With her boyfriend and mother by her side, and a medical staff instructing her, she pushed once, and the girls came out together, wiggling in the amniotic sac they had shared their entire existence.

She had already decided to name them Heaven and Nevaeh (Heaven spelled backward), even before she had to trust that's where they were going.

LaKira is not sure how long they survived, but she held them for hours. She held them as they breathed and after they stopped breathing. She held them naked and dressed in little white gowns and matching hats that the hospital provided. She held them as her mother took pictures of them with her cellphone, capturing images LaKira would later scroll through many nights, sobbing.

"I love you, and I will miss you," she told them both.

Finally, after about 12 hours, she was told it was time to let them go. Detectives had arrived to take their tiny bodies to the medical examiner's office, which would have to address a crucial question: Were their deaths a homicide?

A pair of angels sit on a table at the Johnson home in Northeast D.C. Photo: Nikki Kahn, The Washington Post.
A pair of angels sit on a table at the Johnson home in Northeast D.C. Photo: Nikki Kahn, The Washington Post.
LaKira Johnson's daughter, Kali, 3, cuddles up to a doll. She'd been putting aside toys for her new baby sisters. Photo: Nikki Kahn, The Washington Post
LaKira Johnson's daughter, Kali, 3, cuddles up to a doll. She'd been putting aside toys for her new baby sisters. Photo: Nikki Kahn, The Washington Post

The tiniest victims

It was 4 a.m., and Cassandra couldn't find her daughter anywhere downstairs. She wasn't on the air mattress that had turned the living room into a makeshift bedroom. She wasn't in the kitchen.

Then she looked in the darkened front room. There, she found LaKira sleeping on a teal-colored couch, with two tiny white gowns draped over her shoulder.

Cassandra had watched her daughter grow physically stronger daily. The hospital sent her home with a walker, and within weeks, with the help of a physical therapist, she was slowly making her way unaided up and down the block.

But emotionally, her healing had been harder to gauge.

After the shooting, her family noticed her reading the Bible more and distancing herself from her living daughters as she mourned her lost ones. Some nights, she stayed up late crying and then napped when Raniyah and Kali came home from school.

The white gowns were normally in a mint green box with the few other mementos she had of the twins: two hats, two birth certificates and two white knit blankets, one distinguishable from the other by a small stain Heaven left when she defecated. On difficult days, LaKira held that smudge up to her face and found comfort in breathing in that remaining biological piece of her babies - proof that they had lived.

"I don't think it ever will get easier," she said.

LaKira had decided she didn't want to bury them. She wanted something - even if it was only their ashes - to hold.

Some days, Cassandra felt she'd lost three family members to the shooting. But maybe once the twins were cremated, her daughter could start to heal, she said. Maybe then, she could look at a newborn without breaking down.

Already, more than a month and a half had passed since their deaths, and the family, to their frustration, was no closer to retrieving their bodies.

They couldn't afford to cremate them on their own, and the financial help they were entitled to as crime victims had not come through. The D.C. Crime Victims Compensation Program, run by the Superior Court, provides up to $6,000 for funeral and burial costs for homicide victims - but for the family to qualify, the twins' deaths had to be declared homicides.

Cassandra added that concern to the list of questions she planned to ask interim D.C. police chief Peter Newsham when he visited. He had gone to the hospital to check on her daughter and had promised to come by the house.

On the day he was expected, she decided to make a lasagna dinner in his honor. For hours, she stood in the kitchen cooking as her daughter lay down in the next room, sinking slightly into the air mattress she had patched the day before with a piece of bubble gum.

She remained there, curled on her side, for much of the afternoon. She lay there when the girls came home from school and when two detectives showed up at the house.

She lay there still when Newsham arrived.

She had been swiping through the twins' photos and crying quietly when he walked in and sat beside her. He placed a hand on her knee and then her shoulder.

"You OK?" he asked.

"We're doing OK," she said.

Newsham stayed for about 10 minutes. He didn't have time for the lasagna. He was on a panel with other city officials that night to discuss violent crime in Washington. But before he left, he assured LaKira he would do what he could to help move along the money for the cremation. He also expressed outrage at what had happened to her.

"The fact that she lost two of her babies is obviously tragic, and it shouldn't have happened," he said, "not in this city, not in the District of Columbia."

What he didn't tell her was that the city had recorded 121 homicides this year and that the police department would be adding two more to that number. Heaven and Nevaeh's deaths would be counted as homicides, making them the youngest victims of gun violence in the city this year and possibly ever.

If the police make an arrest in the shooting, Newsham said, the person will be charged with the twins' deaths. But prosecutors would decide whether to pursue those charges.

Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said his office does not comment on pending investigations or charging decisions.

So far, no one has been arrested.

Interim D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham comforts LaKira as her mother, Cassandra Johnson, and her daughter Kali hover beside her air mattress in October. Photo: Nikki Kahn, The Washington Post.
Interim D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham comforts LaKira as her mother, Cassandra Johnson, and her daughter Kali hover beside her air mattress in October. Photo: Nikki Kahn, The Washington Post.

'They're with me now'

Five days after Newsham's visit, LaKira sat next to her mother in a funeral home, looking at pictures of infant urns.

One resembled a teddy bear.

Another, baby booties.

A third was in the shape of a stack of toy blocks.

"How are you doing?" mortician Rhonda McIntyre asked.

"She's coming around," Cassandra answered for her. "We just have to get through this and then the rest of her life."

The medical examiner's office had finally made a ruling: The cause of death was "prematurity complicating maternal gunshot wound" and the manner of death "homicide."

The money from the crime victims program had come through, and the family could now pay for a memorial service and a funeral if they chose. But LaKira had another plan - one that would feel more like a celebration of her daughters' brief lives.

They were due Jan. 7. But on Nov. 4, she walked back into the funeral home and was handed a cardboard box. In it was the urn she had picked out - a wooden base with three alphabet blocks on top. One featured the letter H. Another, the letter N.

For the first time since she gave birth to them, LaKira held her daughters.

"That's all I wanted," she said. "They're with me now."

Two days later, the urn sat in the center of a white fold-out table in the family's living room, along with the mint green box and three enlarged photos of the twins. The air mattress was now gone, and the room was filled with people and laughter and the smell of comfort food cooking.

This was how LaKira wanted to say goodbye.

At dusk, she walked outside with more than two dozen friends and relatives and passed out 22 pink balloons and 22 purples balloons - one for each week she was given with each girl. As her great uncle prayed aloud, speaking about good coming from evil, everyone stood on the sidewalk, hand in hand.

"Amen!" they shouted in unison. And then, all at once, they released the balloons, making the night sky, for at least a moment, a little brighter.

Family members and friends gather in November in Northeast Washington for a prayer and balloon release in remembrance of LaKira's twin daughters. Photo: Nikki Kahn, The Washington Post.
Family members and friends gather in November in Northeast Washington for a prayer and balloon release in remembrance of LaKira's twin daughters. Photo: Nikki Kahn, The Washington Post.

Peter Hermann also contributed to this report.