U.S. to probe fatal beating of black youth

17-year-old boy died in brawl at party in July

It `is the right thing to do'

Charges were dropped against four white men

Pasadena

September 28, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Department of Justice will open a probe into the death of a black Pasadena teenager, Noah Jamahl Jones, who died in a brawl between his group of African-American friends and a group of white youths outside a party in July.

Department of Justice spokesman Eric Holland said yesterday that officials would not comment beyond confirming that the agency's civil rights division is initiating the investigation after a request from the Anne Arundel County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The NAACP, members of the Jones family and congressional representatives called for a federal investigation after Anne Arundel County prosecutors dropped murder charges against four young white men who had been accused in Jones' death July 24.

Jones, 17, who was about to start his senior year at Pasadena's Northeast High School, was fatally injured in the fight a few blocks from his home.

Within the month, prosecutors dropped charges against the four men, saying that preliminary autopsy findings were inconsistent with the police's early investigation. However, the grand jury continues to investigate.

The motive underlying the fight has been unclear. Various parties have pointed to longtime grudges between two groups of young men, tension over interracial friendships and dating, and allegations that the white men were threatening a friend of the black teens.

In an e-mail yesterday, Jones' mother, Robin Jones, expressed relief that federal officials are stepping in.

"I would like this investigation to provide us justice ... beginning with the punishment of those who killed my son," she said.

Rene C. Swafford, a lawyer who represents Robin Jones, said "the community and the family felt something is not right."

Gerald Stansbury, president of the Anne Arundel chapter of the NAACP, said the investigation "is the right thing to do, whether it comes out to be a hate crime or not."

Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said he, too, welcomed the federal probe.

"I am happy to work with them. I am happy to give them anything I have that might be of help to them," he said.

Weathersbee's office dropped the charges just before it would have had to take them to a grand jury for possible indictment or to a judge in preliminary hearings.

Investigations by Weathersbee's office and police continue. Initial police findings indicated that Jones and a few friends went to help a friend who was being threatened, and that in the ensuing fight, Jones was beaten, kicked and died of his injuries.

The Office of Civil Rights can begin a probe into whether someone's civil rights are violated when a crime is suspected of having racial or ethnic motives, said Abraham Dash, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches law at the University of Maryland.

Typically, the FBI is involved in the investigation. But, Dash said, "I don't think that the fact that the feds are taking a look at it means [local officials] did anything wrong."

David P. Putzi, who represented Jacob Tyler Fortney, 18, of Pasadena, one of the four men initially charged, said federal investigators would "find out what everyone else knows - that this was not a crime based on race. They're also going to find out what everyone accepts as historical fact - the African-American youths caused the fight in the first place. They were the aggressors."

But Putzi said that he worries Weathersbee will bow to "political pressure" and charge Fortney again.

Lawyer Peter S. O'Neill, who represented David Michael George of Glen Burnie, another of the four initially charged, predicted that the federal probe could only exonerate his client, who was 19 at the time.

"I kept hearing this racial drumbeat, and I'm mystified by it. ... I don't think this case was racially motivated, ... not when the victims came armed to the party, looking for a battle," he said.

O'Neill has said his client never struck the victim.

Richard Elbert McLeod, 18, of Chestertown and Joshua David Bradley, 20, of Pasadena also had murder charges brought against them and dropped.

The incident continues to reverberate in the community. Early Friday morning, a makeshift memorial to Jones across the street from where he died was burned, police said. They have no suspects.

"Whoever vandalized that memorial, it was a despicable act and it has caused the family and friends of Jamahl Jones a great suffering all over again. It was absolutely uncalled for," said Carl O. Snowden, a leader in the African-American community and an assistant to Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens.

Sun staff writer Laura Barnhardt contributed to this article.

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