On a warm July night, an African-American teenager with a ready smile and plans for the future lay dying on the side of a Pasadena road after a beating, allegedly by six young white men.
To some, including many black residents of Anne Arundel County, the gruesome death stirred deeper tensions in the community and evoked incidents of racial violence in American history.
Others say that view of events is oversimplified. The truth, they say, is that Pasadena is a community like many others, where a string of small wrong turns by young men - black and white - can end in violence.
These competing versions will be pitted against each other in an Anne Arundel County courtroom starting tomorrow when the first of six men charged with manslaughter in the death of Noah Jamahl Jones is to go on trial. The 17-year-old black student and football player at Northeast High School died July 24, after a melee outside a house party. All six defendants, including Jacob Tyler Fortney, 19, the first to go on trial, maintain that they are not guilty.
The case has drawn scrutiny from the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which demanded a federal civil rights investigation. That investigation continues.
State prosecutors have neither cited race as a motive nor charged anyone with a hate crime.
A review by The Sun of court records, excerpts of grand jury testimony and interviews with dozens of people in Pasadena and elsewhere reveal a tragedy complicated by, but not necessarily determined by, race. It also paints a more complete portrait of the young men involved in the deadly brawl.
In many ways, Jones and the suspects were ordinary young people.
Jones wrote rap lyrics in his room and hoped to be the starting fullback on his school's football team. The six defendants liked a good time and wanted to join the military or just get out of Pasadena.
Few of the defendants had spotless pasts. Jones had been kicked out of Northeast High School for fighting, and he showed up at the party with friends who police say were armed with a pistol and stun gun. Several of the defendants had been arrested previously on charges of fighting, stealing or drinking, according to court records.
The violent collision between Jones' friends and the six was devastating for many and has left a community wondering what happened that night and why.
Such a case "can pull in so many different ways," said Kevin Boyle, an Ohio State University history professor whose recent book Arc of Justice examined a racially charged trial in Detroit in the 1920s.
"It can be a catalyst in a community for really talking about racial tensions and the structures of segregations that remain in place. ... But all too often it isn't. Instead, you get people saying there are no problems, or those are problems that happened 30 years ago or those are problems that happen in Alabama, not in Maryland."
Pasadena, in northeastern Anne Arundel County, is a tangle of contradictions.
Traditionally described as working class, it ranks above the national average in household income and well above the national average in housing prices. It is a collection of secluded neighborhoods and small strip malls strung along a peninsula formed by two stubby tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.
In fast-growing Pasadena, gated communities of $2 million mansions have popped up down the road from worn, one-story homes that once served as summer bungalows.
The area's population has grown 20-fold since World War II but remains 90 percent white despite lying 10 miles south of majority-black Baltimore.
Pasadena has seen racial tensions before. In 1998, a small group of people wearing Ku Klux Klan garb handed out fliers about white racial pride in the Green Haven section of Pasadena, where Jamahl Jones lived and was beaten.
"I lived down South, and I tell you that there was no kind of racial tension down there like there is right here," said Mitzi McNeal, a black Pasadena resident who graduated from Northeast High School in 1980.
Relations might seem peaceful, she said, "until you cross that line where you want what I want. Then, that's a different story."
Others disagree. "We do not have racial problems, even though some people say we do," said Robbie Robinson, 72, who is white and has lived in Green Haven since he was a child. "There was a fight, someone died, and one of them happens to be black."
Childhood photos show Noah Jamahl Jones as a wiry kid with an oval face who grinned widely, a boy who looks uncomfortable in his Sunday best. By high school, he still had the huge smile and liked roller coasters and rap music.
When he was 15, his mother moved to Virginia to open a beauty salon. Comfortable with his school and friends, Jones stayed in the Green Haven home of his aunt, Phyllis Jones.
"He was just the typical teenager. Clean your room, turn down the music," Jones said.