Arrests undone: Suspects freed as prosecutors drop cases due to body camera videos

By the time Isiah Jones shouted “Twelve! Twelve!” to warn his friends of the sudden police presence on their West Baltimore block, it was too late, according to court records.

A surveillance officer had been watching the 24-year-old and his crew run an alleged cocaine operation out of a vacant house in the violent Tri-District area that March morning, police allege. Jones was arrested on a litany of drug and gun charges, including illegal possession of a rifle.

Jones, who was once accused of trying to shoot a police officer, had previously served time for assault. If found guilty of the new charges, the repeat offender faced a lengthy prison stay.

But he won’t be tried on those charges. Prosecutors dropped them — and Jones was freed from jail — because an officer involved in his arrest is accused of planting evidence in another case, an allegation that surfaced after the officer’s own body camera footage was made public.

Jones — who told The Baltimore Sun he is innocent — is one of dozens of defendants whose criminal cases have been dropped in the three weeks since public defenders accused Baltimore Officer Richard Pinheiro of planting drugs while two others, Officers Hovhannes Simonyan and Jamal Brunson, looked on. The police union, on the officers’ behalf, has cautioned against a rush to judgment. The matter is under internal investigation.

Regardless of the probe’s outcome, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said the video raised “credibility issues” for other criminal cases that relied on the officers’ testimony. Because of that, she said her office is dropping 41 cases and is reviewing others. A Baltimore Sun review of the 41 cases found that eight involve both gun and drug charges, while the rest involve drug charges, many against individuals with long — and sometimes violent — criminal records.

The eight gun cases include those against Jones, his brother Trayon Jones, 26, and their co-defendant Bryant Hairston, 27. Isiah Jones and Hairston were each charged with eight criminal counts in the case, including possession of a firearm as convicted felons. Trayon Jones was charged with seven counts.

In conversations with The Sun at their homes Tuesday, Isiah Jones and Hairston said they are innocent of the charges. Jones said his brother also is innocent. He said he is happy the charges were dropped.

“It’s already hard for me to find a job with my background,” he said on his Northeast Baltimore porch.

Other dropped gun cases involved officers arresting men they allegedly spotted selling marijuana and heroin in outdoor drug markets and others operating out of vacant houses in Southwest Baltimore, according to court records. Some of the dropped cases stretched back a year.

Four men had two criminal cases against them dropped. One man had already pleaded guilty to a single drug charge when Mosby decided to revisit his case. A judge allowed the man to withdraw his guilty plea this week, and prosecutors dropped the case.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has warned against reaching conclusions about the officers’ actions in the video recorded by Pinheiro’s body camera, and suggested that the officers could have been “re-creating” a legitimate drug discovery, not planting drugs. He held a news conference to say that probable cause was established and drugs were legitimately discovered in the Pinheiro case and a second one in which body-camera video also has spurred allegations of drugs being planted.

Pinheiro has since been suspended by the department; the other two officers in the video have been placed on administrative duty pending the investigation.

On paper, the case involving the Jones brothers and Hairston was the result of just the kind of police work that Davis and other city leaders have been calling for amid record-setting violence in Baltimore, where 211 people have been killed to date in 2017.

It occurred in one of four violent “Transformation Zones” that city officials have specifically targeted for increased policing, and it resulted in the arrests of two convicted felons allegedly back in the game. Police said they recovered suspected cocaine, a rifle and ammunition, a rifle scope, a scale and other drug paraphernalia from the vacant “stash house.”

The case was based on intelligence, and the officers involved felt confident in the link between the gun and drugs recovered from the vacant house and Jones, his brother and Hairston.

“Through my training, knowledge and experience I know it is common for drug traffickers to keep firearms in close proximity to the area they are distributing narcotics and to where they are storing narcotics and proceeds from the sale of these narcotics,” one officer wrote in court records. “These firearms are used for protection from rival drug dealers and anyone who may attempt to rob them.”

When asked about the Jones and Hairston cases being dropped, T.J. Smith, a police spokesman, said that it is “frustrating anytime cases are dropped, especially when we are talking about felons."

“The decision to drop the charges is one made by the state's attorney's office based on the circumstances surrounding the case,” Smith said. “Hopefully these young men use this opportunity to get their lives together. If not, we'll be talking about them again.”

Isiah Jones offers a much different account of the morning he was arrested than the one provided by police.

He said his girlfriend had just dropped him off in the neighborhood, where he intended to meet up with his brother and visit his brother’s son at the boy’s mother’s house. Then cops jumped out and began handcuffing everyone on the corner, he said. He believes the police knew he was a convicted felon with a gun record, and targeted him because of that.

“Only reason why they locked me up is because I was a gun offender,” he said.

In 2011, Jones was sentenced to five years in prison for assault. Police claimed in that case that he aimed a handgun at a police car chasing him and tried to shoot, but the gun’s safety was locked. He disputes the account.

In the March incident, Jones said it wasn’t until he and the others arrested at the scene were at the district police station that he learned what was found in the vacant house and the allegations against him.

“They locked us up and I didn’t know what was going on,” he said.

Hairston said he was just out getting some fresh air that morning, and like Jones had no idea why he was being locked up until later, at the district station.

“I hadn’t been in any vacant house,” Hairston said. “They had told us we were getting locked up for possession, but when we got downtown and saw the charge papers, I was like, ‘Oh hell no,’ because of the gun and all them drugs.”

Hairston said he has had drugs planted on him by police before. His wife Ebony Jones, 25, said he missed the hospitalization of his son while he was locked up, and has been suffering from depression.

She said cops that plant drugs on people and make false arrests “make it bad for the cops that aren’t bad.”

Hairston said he can’t help but imagine “all the other people that are locked up” on false charges in Baltimore.

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