Judge to close courtroom as gang witnesses testify in murder trial

22-month-old Aiden McClendon killed in gang-related drive-by, police say

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Two 19-year-olds accused in the 2016 shooting death of a Jacksonville toddler are set to go on trial Monday on charges including murder, attempted murder and shooting into a vehicle.

Aiden McClendon was 22 months old when he was caught in the crossfire of a gang war while sitting in a car with his family in front of their home.

Henry Hayes and Kquame Richardson are charged in the Jan. 29, 2016, drive-by shooting that killed Aiden. Hayes was 16 at the time, and Richardson was 17.

RELATED: Evidence reveals new details in toddler's killing

After a daylong pre-trial hearing Wednesday to address last-minute issues, Judge Steven Whittington granted a request by prosecutors to close the courtroom during the testimony of two of the state's witnesses.

Prosecutors said the two witnesses in question are known gang members who have been threatened over their testimony, and one was stabbed in prison. The mother of one of the witnesses was also attacked when her house was shot up by someone, prosecutors said.

To protect those witnesses and their families, Whittington agreed to close the courtroom to the public during their testimony, which is expected to focus on the gang activity that sparked the shooting. He ruled that the news media can remain in the courtroom, but must either use only the audio of the testimony or blur the faces of the two witnesses.

The judge has yet to rule on a motion by defense attorneys trying to block specific videos and potential evidence from being used at trial. The defense is fighting the Williams rule, which allows evidence used to show motive or intent, but it cannot be used to prove a defendant's character.

During the hearing, prosecutors showed video that detectives say shows Hayes driving a white SUV, holding up guns and talking about a rival gang. This surveillance video shows the same SUV that detectives said Hayes was in during a shootout not tied to the toddler's death.

It also came out Wednesday that police are tying Hayes and Richardson to one gang that was in conflict with another gang in the weeks leading up to Aiden's death. The judge must decide whether that evidence can be shown to the jury. 

While the two are being tried together, there will be two juries -- one for each defendant. If convicted, Hayes and Richardson could face up to life in prison.

Heavy security will be in place during the trial, which begins with jury selection on Monday morning.

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