Questions persist in death of black teen

Victim, 2 friends were beaten during a fight in Pasadena

Charges were dropped against 4 whites

September 05, 2004|By Sarah Schaffer | Sarah Schaffer,SUN STAFF

NOAH JAMAHL JONES — About the night of July 24, this much is known:

Noah Jamahl Jones -- a linebacker on the Northeast High School football team -- and two friends showed up at a party in Pasadena. They became involved in a brawl with several other young men outside the house, and all three were badly beaten. A short time later, Jones was pronounced dead at a Baltimore hospital.

Six weeks later, however, nearly everything else about what happened that night remains in dispute.

Murder charges were brought -- and dropped -- against four young men who police said were implicated by witnesses in the beating of Jones, 17.

The Anne Arundel County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a federal civil rights investigation into Jones' death. (Jones was black; the four men initially charged in his death are white.)

Jones' mother says he was the victim of a racial incident.

But attorneys for two of the four men say Jones was part of an armed group that came looking for a fight, with one claiming that the teenage host of the party was struck with a handgun when he tried to keep them out. Also, according to prosecutors, Jones and another friend were charged in Juvenile Court with severely beating another teenager last spring.

Although there is no shortage of witnesses, the racially charged case, with its different versions of events, has posed a challenge for prosecutors.

Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, who dropped the murder charges based on the medical examiner's preliminary findings, has convened a grand jury to consider whether murder charges should be refiled, or other charges filed. It met for the second time Friday.

"Any time you have a general melee, which, I think, is what has been reported in this case ... it's complicated sorting out who's who and who did what to whom," said Weathersbee, who declined to discuss specifics.

Questioning prosecutor

However, some Maryland-based legal experts familiar with the case said they were surprised by Weathersbee's actions.

"In a serious case involving a murder, it's highly unusual for a prosecutor to dismiss charges before a full investigation and final autopsy report" has been completed, said Doug Colbert, a professor of law at the University of Maryland and former defense lawyer who teaches courses in race and the law.

Colbert also questioned whether justice would be served through grand jury proceedings, which allow prosecutors to make their case during closed meetings.

"Why not present this evidence in an open public courtroom, where the community can hear whether the evidence is sufficient enough to charge" the men, Colbert said. "Fairness calls for an open court proceeding."

The brawl broke out about 11 p.m. in the Green Haven neighborhood, a working-class enclave of Pasadena.

Several African-American leaders have said the community and the school that Jones attended have a history of racial tensions. The school's principal doesn't agree that Northeast High has such problems.

Robin Jones, the victim's mother, said her son was embarrassed last spring when a white student threw chocolate milk on him in the cafeteria. She complained that the boy wasn't disciplined.

The boy's family alleged at a Juvenile Court hearing that Jones retaliated by beating the 16-year-old in a wooded area near the school, said Assistant State's Attorney Michael Bergeson. Another youth, 17, then struck the victim with a padlock, Bergeson said, leaving the victim with a fractured skull and eye socket, Bergeson said.

Jones' co-defendant admitted to the assault at an appearance last month, Bergeson said. The case against Jones was closed because of his death.

Others, however, are concerned that Jones was ultimately the victim of a hate crime.

In an Aug. 20 letter to the Justice Department, Gerald Stansbury, president of the Anne Arundel NAACP chapter, said that the fight that left Jones dead was prompted by anger over interracial dating. Jones' mother said that her son was hanging out at a white woman's house last year when a group of white men crashed their party and shouted racial slurs.

Members of Jones' family believe that on the night he died, Jones and his two companions were lured to the house by other teenagers who claimed that a friend of theirs was being threatened.

Robin Jones declined to comment late last week.

Police initially said witnesses identified Jones' attackers as Jacob Tyler Fortney of Pasadena, Richard Elbert McLeod of Chestertown, Joshua David Bradley of Pasadena and David Michael George of Glen Burnie. All are ages 18 to 20.

The original charging documents filed by police accused Fortney of kicking Jones "in the head, chest and throat area" outside a house in the 700 block of 205th St. The other men were accused of kicking, punching and beating Jones with their fists and beer bottles, according to charging documents.

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