Charges against four defendants dropped in Pasadena teen's death

Saying the cases had "no reasonable hope of success," Anne Arundel County's chief prosecutor dropped manslaughter and other charges yesterday against four young white men accused in the death of a black Pasadena teenager in a brawl last summer.

State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said he was ending the cases in light of a jury's decision two weeks ago to acquit the first defendant, Jacob Tyler Fortney, of all charges. That was prosecutors' strongest case.

Yesterday's announcement left the family of the dead youth, Noah Jamahl Jones, in tears and African-American leaders seething that, they say, no one is being held accountable for Jones' death outside a house party July 24.

"My son's dead, and nobody's being held responsible," Robin Jones said. "It's like they hung him from a tree - it's the same difference."

At the same time, the decision was praised by lawyers for the defendants, and led the state's attorney to explain his reasoning amid offering condolences to the Jones family.

"I would ask that [people] remember the fate of Jamahl," Weathersbee said. "He didn't deserve to die, and his mother did not deserve to lose a son."

But the prosecutor stressed that there was no point in continuing with the other cases:

"The best evidence that came out of the investigation was in the case of Jacob Fortney. The jury did not find it sufficient. There is no better evidence," he said.

Weathersbee's move ends the state's probe into a death that has exacerbated racial tensions in the county. But a federal civil rights investigation is still pending, as are two civil suits against the owners of the house where the party was held.

Prosecutors yesterday dismissed manslaughter, first-degree assault and two other charges against David Michael George, 20, of Glen Burnie; Scott E. Burton Jr., 19, and Gregory M. Florentino, 21, both of Pasadena; and Richard Elbert McLeod, 19, of Chestertown. Prosecutors had already agreed to dismiss charges against Joshua David Bradley, 20, of Pasadena after he testified against Fortney.

The charges arose from a melee that broke out when Jones and three friends showed up at a Pasadena house party, reportedly to rescue a friend they thought was in trouble. Anne Arundel County police initially charged Fortney, Bradley, George and McLeod with murder, but prosecutors dropped the charges when a preliminary autopsy indicated that Jones' fatal injuries were caused by a fall.

African-American leaders protested, and Weathersbee brought witnesses before a grand jury, which indicted the four, as well as Burton and Florentino, on manslaughter and the other charges.

Prosecutors decided to try Fortney first. But an all-white jury took just 3 1/2 hours to acquit Fortney of all charges. The county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People this week called for an investigation of a newspaper report that jurors improperly discussed the case before deliberations.

Medical evidence showed that Jones, 17, most likely died from brain injuries when he either fell or was knocked backward and cracked his skull on the pavement. A medical examiner at Fortney's trial could not substantiate the account given by Bradley, the prosecution's key witness, who testified that Fortney jumped onto Jones' face after he was down. Bradley said he then saw the body of the Northeast High School student shudder.

Weathersbee, who has been state's attorney since 1988, said he had less evidence against the other defendants.

He defended yesterday's decisions as based on "what is right, which is not necessarily what is popular," and said police and prosecutors' work on the case had been solid.

"I know that some citizens will be angry. Some will be happy. Listen, many people won't agree with this. There is very little I can do about that," said Weathersbee, who has been on the hot seat ever since the first charges were filed in the case. He is poised to seek a fifth term in office next year.

Robin Jones lashed out at prosecutors after a meeting with them yesterday in which she was told of the decision.

She called Fortney's trial a "charade" and, like others in the black community, contended that prosecutors put on a weak case that omitted racial elements they believed important.

But throughout the trial, prosecutors and witnesses said the brawl that claimed Jones' life was not racially motivated, and no hate crime was charged.

"If I were white, I'd never be going through this, never in the world" she said. "Justice was not served at all."

Jones said she is continuing to turn to the U.S. Department of Justice, which the county's NAACP chapter has been pressing to complete its investigation, announced last year.

The Justice Department is determining what further action is appropriate, according to a statement.

Lawyers for some of the defendants praised Weathersbee's decision.

"This was the right thing to do. I'm sure he's going to get a lot of flak politically," said Peter S. O'Neill, attorney for George.

Assistant Public Defender Elizabeth W. Palan, who represents McLeod, said, "I think there was a serious self-defense issue." She noted that the prosecution's key witness had testified that Noah Jamahl Jones had a hammer at one point during the fight. That was disputed by another state witness.

The other defense lawyers declined to comment.

The only surviving charge from the melee is against a black friend of Jones, Marion Shepherd, who authorities allege brought a handgun to the party. Weathersbee, who has a policy of pressing handgun charges, decided to drop other charges against Shepherd, as well as a stun-gun possession charge against another of Jones' friends, Tormarco Harris.

The decisions to drop charges against the white defendants but to press the gun charge against Shepherd have angered black community leaders.

"The fact that all charges were dropped against the other white defendants, and they have decided to pursue the charge against the African-American defendant, certainly does not give the appearance of justice," said Carl O. Snowden, a black community leader and aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens. "I personally think it is a mistake."

"The Jamahl Jones case should not have the legacy of the Emmett Till case, where 50 years ago a teenager was murdered and 50 years later no one was held accountable for that murder," Snowden said.

Till was 14 when he was kidnapped, beaten and killed. His body was found tied to a cotton gin fan in the Tallahatchie River, days after he supposedly whistled at a white woman in Mississippi. Two men were acquitted, only to admit to the crime later.

Weathersbee said the cases are not comparable. He said neither the police nor the grand jury believed the case was a hate crime. He said he is pursuing the handgun charge against Shepherd because he views "the illegal carrying of any handgun, regardless of the circumstances, as a very serious matter."

Snowden pointed to a need to begin immediately to repair race relations. Blacks make up less than one-fifth of the county population.

The resulting picture is distressing to the black community, said Gerald Stansbury, president of the Anne Arundel County branch of the NAACP.

He said, "There is a general perception that African-American life is of little value, and this feeds into that perception."

Sun Staff Writer Molly Knight contributed to this article.