• Washington Post

A Mother Saw Her Son’s Fatal Shooting – at His High School Graduation

Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson
The Altria Theater in Richmond.

Tameeka Jackson-Smith remembers her husband straightening her son’s bow tie and tucking paper towels under 18-year-old Shawn Jackson’s dress shirt to keep sweat from trickling through the fabric. She remembers looking on with pride as Jackson slipped his arms into a green graduation gown. She remembers her family piling into their truck and heading to Richmond’s Altria Theater to watch him walk across the stage.

And Jackson-Smith, 39, remembers standing outside the theater when Jackson, still in his gown, walked toward her amid a crush of other students and their parents. She remembers the terrified look on his face as she heard the sound of gunfire and saw her husband, Renzo Smith, dive toward the fray, taking some of the shots that were meant for her son.

“Even now, I still can’t believe it,” she said.

Jackson and Smith, 36, were killed. Five others were wounded. Jackson-Smith’s 9-year-old daughter was also hit by a vehicle that day while she was running toward Smith, who was fatally shot on the ground. The incident thrust the city’s violence into national news, as the chilling images of young Huguenot High School graduates in caps and gowns racing to safety rocketed around the internet and sparked cries for officials to better protect students.

Jason Kamras, Richmond Public Schools superintendent, said he has gone to at least 45 vigils for students in the district since he started in 2018 – though not all were related to gun violence. On the same day Jackson and Smith were killed, Kamras said three other Richmond Public Schools students were shot in two separate incidents.

The tragedy would be compounded for Jackson-Smith in the days and weeks that followed. Police charged Amari Ty-Jon Pollard, 19, with two counts of second-degree murder, alleging that after the ceremony he exchanged words with Jackson, then got a gun from his car and opened fire. Jackson and Pollard had an ongoing dispute, police said, though they have not detailed what it was about. Jackson-Smith said she had believed her son considered Pollard a friend, and the two had sleepovers in their younger years.

In the month that followed the shooting, she said she found herself constantly reminded of her son, her husband and the promise that was cut short.

“When I see big trucks, I think of my husband. When I go into my bathroom, I see the stuff my son used to use,” she said. “It’s just traumatizing, and I know that they’re not coming back.”

‘You have to finish high school’

Jackson was known in the local rap scene as “OTG Shawn,” but he also loved sports – football, basketball, baseball, according to his friends and relatives. After high school, he planned to attend a technical college in North Carolina for sports medicine.

But getting his diploma was not easy.

Jackson-Smith said her husband had liver disease and was immunocompromised. While covid-19 remained a threat, she decided to give her kids at-home instruction to help protect Smith, even after the school system returned to in-person learning.

She enrolled Jackson in a program called Richmond Virtual Academy, which allows students to attend classes virtually, sometimes for safety reasons. A Richmond Public Schools spokesperson confirmed Jackson participated in the homebound program on the recommendation of a medical practitioner.

Isolated from his friends, Jackson grew depressed at the start of his senior year, his mother said. He submitted fewer assignments, and his grades dropped. Jackson-Smith said she worried he would not be able to earn his diploma.

Rennada Smith said her brother Renzo Smith played a critical role in pushing his stepson to stay motivated.

A military veteran and truck driver who worked long hours, Renzo Smith was committed to caring for his family, his sister said. Renzo Smith, she said, “never used the word ‘stepchildren,'” and “took on the responsibility of being a father.”

“He was on him so hard about finishing school, staying the course and staying focused,” Rennada Smith said. “He would say: ‘You have to get an education. You have to finish high school.'”

With graduation looming, Jackson recommitted to finishing high school, his mother said. He worked out a plan with his teachers – and began finishing assignments and showing up for tests, Jackson-Smith said.

“He made sure he did what he had to do so that he could walk across the stage,” his mother said.

The day of the shooting

On June 6, the day of the ceremony, Jackson’s family gathered inside the grand, Egyptian-style tiled walls of the Altria Theater. They looked for Jackson in the sea of teenagers wearing green caps and gowns, eager for the speaker to bellow his name.

He inched closer and closer toward the stage, then strutted toward Kamras, beaming. His family shouted and waved at Jackson from the audience as he shook Kamras’s hand.

“Lord, did we cheer. I probably broke somebody’s ears,” said Audrey Holland, Jackson’s grandmother. “He was smiling so hard. It brought tears to my eyes, the joy in seeing my oldest grandson walk across the stage.”

Holland said that after the ceremony, Jackson’s family stood behind the teachers and administrators, cheering for Jackson and other Huguenot graduates as they trickled out of the theater. Jackson ran up to them and wrapped his arms around his family. Holland squeezed him tight.

“I am so proud of you,” she said. Jackson smiled at her and saw a classmate walk by. He replied: “Hold on. One minute.” He walked away, and then Holland heard shots.

Jackson-Smith said she did not know what prompted the shooting. But she said Pollard and her son had known each other since they were children.

Jackson-Smith said about four months ago, Jackson had told her that he was hanging out with Pollard. She asked for a photo of him and immediately recognized Pollard from years prior. A Richmond Public Schools official said Pollard was a student at a Richmond high school before withdrawing in 2020, but would not specify which school.

“I’m one of those mothers who’s all up in your business,” she said. “I saw that picture I have and I was like, ‘Oh, okay. I remember him.’ So I didn’t even know that he even had an issue.”

Police have shared few details about the evidence they have found, saying they wanted to protect some information for when the case goes to court. Colette Wallace McEachin, Richmond’s commonwealth attorney, said that she knew some of the details but wasn’t ready to share.

Jason Anthony, Pollard’s attorney, said that the case was still fluid, with new details emerging every day. He said the shooting, along with Pollard and Jackson’s relationship, was complex, though he declined to elaborate.

Richmond leaders said gun violence is a persistent problem in the city. Between 2021 and 2023, Richmond police said 11 people who were 17 years old or younger died from a gunshot wound. Police did not specify how many people who died from a gunshot wound were 18 years old, the age Jackson was when he was killed. Nationally, research shows that gun deaths in teens have grown significantly since 2019.

Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson
The Altria Theater in Richmond.

A return to the scene

Three days after the graduation, Jackson-Smith returned to the theater.

She walked by the patch of grass where her other two daughters sat and cried in the moments after they lost two members of their family. Next to it, a box of flowers and deflated balloons were propped against a sign that said “RPS Strong.” A few feet away, splotches of blood stained the concrete.

Joseph Smith, Renzo Smith’s father, hovered over the stains before turning away. One of Jackson-Smith’s family members, feeling faint, rushed to a chair as her legs began to wobble beneath her. Jackson-Smith gazed at a nearby park, facing away from the concrete. She folded her head into her palms.

“Oh my god. Oh my god,” she cried.

Family members gathered around Jackson-Smith as she stood outside the theater, stricken with grief. Her head began to bob beneath her hands as she gasped for air.

Her sister rubbed her back. Jackson-Smith briefly moved her hands and took a breath.

“I can’t believe he took my son and my husband,” she said. Her hands quickly returned to cover her face.