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Court records show multiple opportunities to have jailed accused police shooter

Donte Jones is accused of shooting Baltimore city police Officer Andrew Groman on Sunday.
Donte Jones is accused of shooting Baltimore city police Officer Andrew Groman on Sunday. (handout / Baltimore Sun)

An alleged cop shooter might have remained in jail had a probation agent sent a judge a request for an arrest warrant that the office had prepared.

Donte Jones, arrested Sunday after Baltimore police say he shot an officer, was in court six months ago on drug and weapons charges when prosecutors told a judge to deny him bail because he was already on probation for a 2013 gun charge.

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The incidents highlight two opportunities Baltimore's criminal justice system could have kept the 19-year-old off the streets before a traffic stop Sunday evening that resulted in Baltiimore police officer Andrew Groman suffering a gunshot wound to his abdomen. The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said it did not know why its probation division did not complete a process to secure a warrant against Jones when police say he violated his probation in June.

Baltimore police union president Gene Ryan called it "unbelievable" that there were multiple chances to keep Jones jailed. He said probation agents and judges need to be held accountable for their decisions just as police are being held accountable by the public for mistakes.

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"Our guys are working diligently and do on their end what they need to do and then watch these criminals walk out," Baltimore police union president Gene Ryan said. "That's a problem in Baltimore. You have to keep the bad guys incarcerated."

Groman, 27, who also volunteers as a Pikesville firefighter, is recovering from surgery and remained in stable condition Wednesday after sustaining a gunshot wound to his abdomen.

On Tuesday, Jones appeared in court where a Baltimore district court judge denied him bail during a brief hearing. Afterward his attorney questioned if the current climate around police conduct may have caused Jones to panic.

Police have repeatedly labeled Jones a "violent repeat offender," and court records show that he was on probation after pleading guilty to a January 2013 handgun charge. He was arrested again June 20 and charged again with a gun charge, court records show.

The June charge should have triggered an arrest warrant under the terms of his probation, and his probation agent wrote in court papers that she requested one on June 24.

But the request was "never received by the court," the probation agent wrote in a new request for a warrant made on Sunday after Jones' arrest in the shooting of Groman.

Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said an "investigation is focusing on why the paperwork did not get to the court, as well as why the supervision of Mr. Jones continued without any follow-up with the court on the June warrant request." The findings could result in disciplinary action or procedural changes, he said.

State courts are not automatically advised when someone on probation is arrested again. Probation agents prepare a short summary of the charges and ask a judge to issue a warrant for probation violation. It is common for a handgun charge to result in a no-bail warrant but prosecutors say it's up to a judge's discretion.

When Jones was in court in June facing his second gun charge, Baltimore prosecutors told a district judge at a bail review hearing that the teen was on probation for a weapons charge. Baltimore Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth Embry said the judge set bail at $150,000 though prosecutors had recommended that Jones not be granted bail.

The judge who granted Jones bail was not known because the public court file in that case was not available Tuesday. A Maryland District Court spokeswoman said she could not reach judges late Tuesday afternoon to question them about Jones' bail.

Court records show Jones posted a bond and was released.

On Sunday night, police say Jones was riding in a silver Cadillac with three other men when an officer smelled marijuana coming out of the vehicle at a West Baltimore gas station. The car was pulled over, and Groman and other officers asked the occupants to step out, police said.

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Despite warnings that he would be shocked with a stun gun if he didn't comply, police say, Jones refused and kept his hands concealed.

Groman reached for his department-issue Taser as Jones pulled a .357 revolver and fired three times striking Groman under his bulletproof vest, police say. Jones fled but officers caught him after a short foot chase.

This week, Jones' probation agent, Benita Hill, filed paperwork notifying the court of Jones' arrest in the officer shooting, as well as the June arrest. Judge Michael A. DiPietro signed a no-bail warrant.

The scenario described by police is similar to the circumstances that first landed Jones in court in January 2013, according to charging documents in that case. Records show officers pulled over a Honda Civic in the 2500 block of Edgecombe Circle North for having too much window tint and a "hood not properly secured."

Jones was seated in the rear passenger seat, and appeared nervous, Det. Kenneth Ramberg wrote in court documents. Police asked Jones if he had any weapons, and he said no. Jones got out of the car and allowed officers to search him, but while he was seated on the curb officers found a 9 mm handgun under the driver's seat.

Police said Jones smelled marijuana and in his home they found 9 mm cartridges that matched the gun found in the car.

Jones was 17 at the time of the arrest, and he pleaded guilty three months later to a handgun charge. Judge Michael W. Reed handed down a three-year suspended sentence, and Jones was placed on probation instead of having to serve additional jail time.

In May 2013, Jones asked the court to reconsider his sentence. Attorney Christopher Wheatcroft wrote in a petition to the judge that Jones "greatly regrets his conduct that led to these charges" and "certainly has learned his lesson."

On Wednesday, Jones' attorney Warren A. Brown said he had no insight as to why Jones had not been jailed for the alleged probation violation. He said he has several questions about the traffic stop that led to Groman's shooting including whether smelling marijuana was a valid reason to pull a car over.

"I don't know that any marijuana was found," he said. "I think the State's Attorney's Office and the police are going to have to play it honest no matter the warts and all [in this case] because if a Baltimore City jury gets the impression that they're lying about anything — it's going to taint their ability to get a conviction."

While Brown said he was not justifying the shooting, he wondered if Jones' "survival instincts" kicked in because he thought he was facing a gun. Brown said Tasers resemble handguns, and in today's climate with thousands of people protesting police shootings of black men, Jones may have panicked.

He said he suspects there's more to the story than police have disclosed.

"I don't think someone just shoots a police officer," Brown said.

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Brown on Tuesday unsuccessfully lobbied to have Jones held on home monitoring. He noted that Jones' relatives had packed the courtroom and told the judge he had a supportive family.

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Jones appeared on a live video feed and could be seen in a light blue prisoner uniform with his hands cuffed in his lap and his body slumped against the back of a chair.

"Can I say something though?" he asked the judge after she had finished explaining his right to legal counsel. Police say Jones confessed to the shooting, but Jones told the judge "I did not confess to that."

Brown cut him off before he could elaborate.

After the hearing, Jones cousin, Mia Tubman, wiped tears from her face as she watched Jones on the monitor. After the hearing, she said that police officers had abused Jones while he was in their custody and said he was injured after his mug shot was taken. "They beat the [expletive] out of him," she said.

Tubman also said that police lied about his confession.

Baltimore police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said "there was no other reported use of force other the deploying of a Taser" on Jones before he was apprehended. Police say his confession is on video.

Tubman said Jones lived with her for years, and was a bright child, who was a gifted math student. "He was raised up in the church," she said.

She said Jones has one young child and a second on the way.

As Jones' family criticized Jones' treatment, city officials responded to the anger some activists and others continued to feel about a comment Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts made hours after Groman was shot.

At a news conference outside Groman's hospital Sunday night, Batts questioned whether protesters who have been rallying for weeks against police brutality in Baltimore would also march in support of Groman.

The comment was cheered in law enforcement circles but the NAACP, civil rights leaders and other activists said the suggestion made light of protesters' legitimate concerns and damaged community relations.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the commissioner was feeling a "lot of very raw emotions" after Groman had been shot, and they may have contributed to what he said.

She said she would not have chosen to have made a comment that compared Groman's shooting to police brutality, which she said are not comparable issues.

"The danger in mixing them is you lose the importance of both of those issues," she said.

After Batts made the comment on Sunday, Rawlings-Blake shared her feelings with Batts, her spokesman Kevin Harris said.

Batts has declined to discuss the comment since he made it. On Wednesday, Kowalczyk said Batts "continues to believe that we must have a reverence for all life. Unnecessary violence against citizens or our police officers is unacceptable and will not be tolerated."

Baltimore Sun reporters Yvonne Wenger and Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

Twitter.com/justingeorge

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