State drops murder charges

4 men held in county jail since teen's death at party

Investigation is continuing

Northeast student's family claims possible hate crime

Anne Arundel

August 20, 2004|By Sarah Schaffer | Sarah Schaffer,SUN STAFF

Four men jailed since last month in the death of a Northeast High School football player were freed Wednesday night after prosecutors dropped murder charges against them - though authorities say the four still could face other charges in the case.

A preliminary autopsy report shows that Noah Jamahl Jones' fatal injuries July 24 were "inconsistent with initial police assessment" that led authorities to accuse Jacob Tyler Fortney, Richard Elbert McLeod, Joshua David Bradley and David Michael George in the death of the 18-year-old student, said Kristin Riggin, a spokeswoman for the county's state's attorney's office.

But the investigation is continuing, Riggin said, and prosecutors are looking into claims by Jones' family that his death may have been the result of a hate crime.

Jones was black, and the four initially charged with murder are white.

The possibility of other charges comes as no consolation to members of Jones' family, who were rocked by the decision to drop the murder charges, said Jones' mother, Robin Jones.

"We are disgusted with the state's attorney's decision to release these four young men," Robin Jones said in a telephone interview yesterday from her sister's home in Pasadena. "We were just starting to heal a little bit. But now, we're back to square one."

She believes that her son's death was racially motivated. Last year, he and his friends were assaulted by a group of white youths at a neighborhood party that the four men also attended, she said.

The Anne Arundel chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said yesterday that it was preparing to send a letter to the Justice Department's hate crimes unit asking for a federal investigation of the case.

"We want the truth, but we also want it to be characterized as it should be characterized. If it is a hate crime, then we want it to be treated as such," said Gerald Stansbury, president of the NAACP chapter.

But Fortney's lawyer, David Putzi, said yesterday: "This is not a hate crime. Although I am aware that the investigation is still alive at this point, I am confident that that they are going to end up right where they are now."

Officials with the state's attorney's office said that, based on the evidence, they had no choice but to release the men, ages 18 to 20, who had been held at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center.

"We very much understand how upset the victim's family is right now. For obvious reasons, they are overwhelmingly disappointed," Riggin said. "But it would be wrong of us to hold these four men at this point based on those preliminary autopsy reports."

Riggin would not comment further on the medical examiner's findings.

Jones' mother, who met with investigators before the men's release, said the preliminary report indicates that her son's fractured skull was consistent with a fall.

"My son is dead and gone," she said. "Somebody's going to have to be responsible for this death."

Over the past three weeks, those close to the case have given differing accounts of what happened the night Jones died.

According to Anne Arundel County police, Fortney, McLeod, Bradley and George were identified by witnesses as those who attacked Jones and two others, Tormarco Santonia Harris and Marion James Sheppard, at a party in the 700 block of 205th St. in Pasadena.

A news release issued by police the day after the incident reported that Jones and two friends went to the address because a friend who was at the house was being threatened.

When they arrived, a fight started in front of the house. A short time later, Jones was dead and his two friends were injured.

It was unclear if any weapons were involved, police reported.

George's lawyer, Peter S. O'Neill, said that Jones' group went to the party intent on violence, adding that his client told him that someone who confronted his client's group was carrying a handgun.

Yesterday, county police spokesman Joseph E. Jordan said he could not confirm or deny whether a gun was found at the scene.

O'Neill also rejected the suggestion that the fight was a hate crime.

"From what I know, from the witnesses that we interviewed, this had nothing to do with race," O'Neill said. "This had to do with two groups of individuals who didn't like each other."

Lawyers for the two other men could not be reached yesterday for comment.

Sun staff writers Andrea F. Siegel and Liz F. Kay contributed to this article.

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