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U.S. case in teen's death is unlikely

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Those demanding justice for Noah Jamahl Jones, the black Pasadena teenager who died in a brawl last summer, said they are pinning their hopes on a federal civil rights probe now that local prosecutions have ended.

But experts say that hope may be in vain. Such federal civil rights cases are rare. And the local prosecutor - who dropped murder charges against four young white men last year, and then dropped manslaughter charges brought in the case after one suspect was acquitted this month - said he never found evidence of a hate crime.

"The federal government can step in and prosecute; however, they would only do so if they felt there was something wrong with what the local prosecutor did," said Abraham Dash, a University of Maryland law professor and former federal prosecutor. "I can't see that happening here. The state's attorney there is an experienced guy, and he had a tough case."

On Tuesday, Anne Arundel State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee announced that he was dismissing manslaughter, assault and other charges against the four men in the July death of Jones, 17.

The move came nearly two weeks after an all-white jury acquitted Jacob Tyler Fortney, who also is white, of the same charges. Weathersbee said he had no chance of winning the remaining cases.

Prosecutors had already agreed to drop charges against a sixth white defendant who testified against Fortney.

Pushing for probe

Weathersbee has been under fire from the victim's mother, Robin Jones, and local civil rights leaders for his handling of the case.

Weathersbee has arranged to provide all materials relating to the case to federal prosecutors, said Kristin Riggin, a spokeswoman for the county state's attorney's office.

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to review the case at the request of the Anne Arundel County chapter of the NAACP and two congressional representatives.

"We think the federal investigation is going to be kick-started now that charges have been dropped," said Carl O. Snowden, a black community leader who is an aide to Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens. "There is a question that remains unanswered and that is: Who will be held responsible for the death of Jamahl Jones?"

It's unclear where the federal investigation, announced in September, stands.

"We are aware of the district attorney's decision, and we are determining whether further action is appropriate," Justice Department spokesman Eric Holland said last week.

Experts on civil rights law said it's rare for federal prosecutors to pursue cases that have been lost or dropped at the local level. The lack of physical evidence and conflicting witness accounts that hurt the local case could make it unappealing for federal prosecutors, said Charles F. Abernathy, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.

"These kinds of factors, in the general run of cases, make it very rare for federal prosecutors to follow state failures," Abernathy said.

Federal law is designed to account for factors beyond those considered locally. Abernathy said some federal prosecutors move forward because they believe local prosecutors haven't produced thorough cases.

He said the fact that the jury in Fortney's trial was all white also could catch a federal prosecutor's eye. But he said that without evidence of an egregious oversight by local prosecutors, a federal case would be unlikely.

"As a practical matter, prosecutors don't do that because they're investing a lot of resources," Abernathy said. "They're very reluctant to do these."

The cases arose from a melee that broke out July 24 after Jones and his friends showed up at a house party in Pasadena, reportedly to rescue a friend they thought might be in danger. Within minutes, Jones lay dying in the street.

The case against Fortney relied heavily on testimony from co-defendant Joshua David Bradley, who told jurors that Fortney alone delivered the final blow to Jones as he lay on the ground.

But a medical examiner could not substantiate the account given by Bradley, and medical evidence suggested that Jones most likely died from brain injuries when he either fell or was knocked backward and cracked his skull on the pavement. Some jurors said they did not find Bradley believable.

'Not racially motivated'

In dropping charges against the four other defendants - David Michael George, Scott E. Burton, Jr., Gregory M. Florentino and Richard Elbert McLeod - Weathersbee said the Fortney case had been his strongest and clearest.

Attorneys for some of the defendants have said they're confident the federal probe will not find evidence of a hate crime.

"We expect that the federal authorities will quickly exonerate Mr. Fortney and the other defendants," said Fortney's attorney, David Fischer. "This was not a racially motivated event."

Some defense lawyers have said their clients were defending themselves against an armed group that showed up at a party uninvited. Police alleged that two of Jones' three friends were armed, and Bradley testified that Jones had a hammer. Jones' friends are black.

In requesting the federal probe, the county NAACP noted anger over Jones dating white women and a history of racial tension in the community. Fortney denied last week that race was a factor.

Federal law defines a hate crime as a crime against a person or property motivated by bias toward race, religion, ethnicity or national origin, disability or sexual orientation.

Federal investigations relating to hate crimes evolved from the 1964 Civil Rights Act. During the 1960s, prosecutors used federal probes as alternatives to pursuing criminal cases before all-white, local juries.

The number of cases has dropped in recent years - a Syracuse University study showed 84 federal civil rights cases in 2003, compared to 159 four years earlier - although federal prosecutors have achieved a few convictions.

Last year, five men were convicted of conspiracy after a black man, accompanying a white woman, was stabbed at a Denny's restaurant in Springfield, Mo.

Also last year, six men were convicted of a hate crime for burning a cross on the lawn of a white woman in Trenton, Ga., whose daughter was dating a black man.

A federal report released last fall showed 7,489 reported hate crimes in 2003, with just more than half of those relating to race. The incidents included 14 murders, although vandalism and intimidation were the most commonly reported offenses. The total numbers were among the lowest reported during the 13 years the government has tracked hate-crime statistics.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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