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Teen's death: a matter of race or self-defense?

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

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."

'Typical teenager'

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.

He grew into a muscular teen who dressed sharply and liked to wear Michael Jordan brand cologne. With a confident, easygoing demeanor, he was popular with girls.

In addition to football, Jones played basketball and rugby. He was praised by his football coach as a tireless worker who never missed practice, even on the hottest afternoons.

Jones also got into trouble. In April last year, he got into a fight after a student doused him and a friend with chocolate milk at school. He was upset, his mother said, because he was to have a photo taken that day and believed the incident was not an accident and that school officials would not punish the student.

Jones punched the student several times, Anne Arundel County police said, and Jones' friend struck the boy in the face with a padlock. Jones and his friend were charged with assault and expelled.

For the next several weeks, Jones sat at home, disillusioned and rarely leaving his room, his mother said.

During that time, he grew more serious, his mother said. He vowed to win readmission to school and to become a starter on the football team. Instead of spending the summer with her in the Virginia Beach, Va., area, he stayed in Pasadena to attend summer school. He cut his braids and went for a more preppy look. He talked about college, no longer as a backup to rap stardom but as a goal.

"He was just starting to blossom into a man," said Phyllis Jones' fiance, Tony Williams.

Jones attended summer classes and was readmitted to school.

But he never made it back.

Troubled pasts

The six defendants knew each other from school, from around the neighborhood and from attending or playing in Northeast High School football games.

They loved watching goofy comedies and going to high school football games. Some had graduated from high school.

All six declined, through their attorneys, to discuss the case.

Gregory M. Florentino, 21, of Pasadena went by the nickname "Greg Mastersexay." Scott E. Burton Jr., 19, of Pasadena was said to have the best smile in Northeast's Class of 2003. David Michael George, 20, of Glen Burnie was voted "most likely to get in trouble" in the Class of 2002 and, in his senior yearbook, thanked a school official "for not expelling me."

George listed as one of his favorite movies American History X, the tale of a skinhead who is imprisoned for killing a black man and later tries to mend his ways.

Several of the suspects had been in trouble.

Fortney of Pasadena, a son of a military family who was a one-time classmate of Jones, was accused of stealing from the hosts of a party that he had been asked to leave. Charges were dropped.

A few months later, Fortney's girlfriend told police that he had grabbed her by the neck and shoulders and shoved her against the wall repeatedly, court records show. A District Court judge sent him to an anger-management program.

Richard Elbert McLeod, 19, of Chestertown, whose mother was slain when he was 9 in a murder-for-hire plot, spent time in court-ordered treatment for substance abuse.

The last defendant is Joshua David Bradley, 20, of Pasadena, who has agreed to testify for prosecutors in exchange for having charges dropped.

Robin Jones says there might have been bad blood between her son and his friends and at least one of the defendants.

Saturday night melee

A little after 9 p.m. July 24, Jones checked in with his mother, who was in Virginia, and said he and friends were leaving Marley Station Mall in Glen Burnie, according to his mother, Robin Jones.

From the mall, they went to a friend's house nearby, where they shot pool. Then one of them took a call on his cell phone from a friend saying that another friend, Jahlil Best, was in a house a few miles away in Green Haven and might get "jumped," according to grand jury testimony.

Best later testified that he was a guest at the party, but whether he was in danger is not clear.

Within minutes, Jones and his friends took off in three cars to rescue Best.

Things began to go wrong.

Two of the cars took a wrong turn on Mountain Road. The one carrying Jamahl Jones and three friends - Tormarco Harris, Marion Shepherd and DeWayne Hebron - did not.

They soon arrived at the house on 205th Street, where Jones' friend was supposedly in trouble. The six defendants were partying at the house, owned by the parents of Michael Steinbach, who were in Ocean City at the time.

What happened outside the Steinbach house, a modest two-story home, when Jones arrived with his three friends is in dispute.

The four black teenagers encountered Steinbach and his friends outside the house and demanded that their friend be let out, some witnesses told a grand jury.

The party host said he didn't know what the group was talking about, according to grand jury testimony. Shepherd then slugged Steinbach in the head with a handgun, prosecutors said in charging Shepherd with assault.

Shepherd testified that he had a gun that night but that it was unloaded and that he never pointed it at anyone. He said it fell out of his waistband when he was punched during the fight, according to a transcript of his testimony.

The melee was under way. Witnesses told police that several of men from the party wielded bottles while Harris brandished a stun gun, according to court documents. One of the six, Bradley, has told prosecutors that Jones had a hammer, according to a court document filed by attorneys for Fortney. Other witnesses told the grand jury that Jones had no weapon,

At one point, Jones was hit by an airborne bottle and cried out that he couldn't see, Hebron told the grand jury, according to a transcript of his testimony.

A caller, possibly Steinbach, phoned 911 to report fighting outside the house. At 11:02 p.m. a second caller to 911 said someone was lying in the street and might be dead, according to a tape of the call, played for The Sun by a source close to investigation who asked not to be identified.

"He's out. He's out," the caller said over panicked voices.

The other two cars that had left with Jones and his friends but made a wrong turn showed up after Jones had hit the ground. Police and paramedics arrived at a scene of bloodied people, shattered glass and torn clothing. Jones was lying by Fortney's Mustang.

Aftermath

Jones was taken to a hospital with the back of his skull fractured and was pronounced dead early the next morning.

Police charged Bradley, Fortney, George and McLeod with murder, alleging that they had beaten and kicked Jones to death. (Florentino and Burton were not initially charged.)

As August wore on, the case fizzled. Lawyers for the men charged said they were acting in self-defense. Early autopsy information indicated that Jones died not from a blow but when the back of his head hit something, perhaps in a fall. Prosecutors dropped charges but said they would continue investigating.

Jones' mother and local civil rights activists did not buy that version of events, and the NAACP urged the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate.

"It is being viewed as a hate crime whether or not it is being documented as a hate crime," said Pierre German, pastor of Friendship Victory Vision Ministries in Glen Burnie, which the Jones family attended.

Robin Jones has said - and several students have confirmed - that Jones was envied and disliked by some white boys who objected to seeing him with white girls and were envious of his popularity.

That popularity was displayed during the multiracial vigils held for Jones, during which classmates donned T-shirts bearing his picture, lighted candles in his memory and described him as a peacekeeper.

Less than a week after the initial charges were dropped, State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee convened a grand jury, which last fall indicted the six defendants on manslaughter charges and related counts.

Weathersbee and police have declined to discuss specifics of the case. "He does not feel that we should making any statements on the eve of a trial," said Kristin Riggin, spokeswoman for Weathersbee.

Two of Jones' friends also have been charged. In February, Shepherd was charged with the misdemeanor assault of Steinbach and two handgun violations. After he spoke to a grand jury, he was served with a warrant charging him with possessing cocaine. Harris was charged with possession of the stun gun, a misdemeanor.

Now, Jacob Fortney's trial looms.

The African-American community is arranging for daily monitors. Students from Northeast say they might cut classes to watch the testimony. The sheriff's office will provide extra security in Judge Joseph P. Manck's courtroom.

Bradley told investigators that Fortney was the only assailant who attacked Jones after he was on the ground and said, "I've had enough," according to statements by Fortney's lawyers at a pretrial hearing.

The attorneys unsuccessfully challenged the admissibility of Bradley's statement, noting in court that that other witnesses gave different versions of what happened.

The attorneys have not offered their account of the evening but maintain Fortney's innocence. Fortney's attorneys have said during pretrial hearings that their client was defending himself against a menacing, armed group.

"Our client is innocent, and we believe that will be proven at trial," said David W. Fischer, one of Fortney's attorneys.

The autopsy, obtained by The Sun, says Jones was struck at least five times in the head. Blows to his head and body could have come from bottles, fists and kicks, it said, the back of his skull was fractured, and he suffered extensive brain trauma.

In the autopsy, the medical examiner said the injury was consistent with the back of the head striking the ground. But she has said that further blows might have contributed to his death.

When the trial begins, Robin Jones plans to be in the courtroom.

Said Jones, "All I want is justice."


Bios of the suspects

  • Jacob Fortney, 19, of Pasadena. A West Virginia-born stepson andbrother of military men who attended high school with Jones, Fortneywas accused of assaulting his girlfriend and then sent by a judge to ananger management course.
  • Scott E. Burton Jr., 19, of Pasadena said in his high school yearbookthat his goal was to "move from the 'dena' (short for Pasadena).Authorities said he was found in possession of a ferret stolen from thehost of a party that he and Fortney were asked to leave. Charges weredropped.
  • Gregory M. Florentino, 21, of Pasadena played high school lacrosseand wrestled. He went by the nicknames "Shorty" and "GregMastersexay." He served one day of probation before judgment in 2003for blowing up a neighbor's mailbox.
  • David Michael George, 20, of Glen Burnie is listed as "most likely tocause trouble" in his yearbook. He received probation before judgmenton charges of driving under the influence and marijuana possession,both when he was 18. Fortney's lawyers claimed in court motions thatGeorge's effort to reach a deal with prosecutors was failing because apolygraph test showed George had lied to police.
  • Richard Elbert McLeod, 19, of Chestertown spent time in juvenilejustice facilities and court-ordered substance-abuse treatment. Hismother was fatally shot in a murder-for-hire plot when he was 9.
  • Joshua David Bradley, 20, of Pasadena has agreed to testify forprosecutors in exchange for the dropping of charges.Source: District Court records, Northeast High School yearbooks. Sun staff writer Sarah Schaffer contributed to this article.
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