Lawyers for former Philadelphia police officer Ryan Pownall are accusing District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office of being motivated by an “unforeseen agenda” in prosecuting Pownall, the first officer in nearly two decades charged with murder in connection with a fatal police shooting in the city.
Pownall, a white officer who lost his job with the department, fatally shot and killed David Jones, a 30-year-old black man, as Jones fled the scene of a traffic stop in June 2017. The case has ignited citywide protests and become one of the city’s most high-profile criminal prosecutions in recent months.
Defense attorney Fred Perri is pushing the judge in the case to hold a preliminary hearing in which prosecutors would have to demonstrate that they have enough evidence to take Pownall to trial, but Krasner’s office says such a hearing would be time-consuming and costly. Plus, prosecutors say, the grand jury that handed down the murder charges against Pownall already determined that there is probable cause to bring the ex-cop’s case in front of a jury.
To Perri, skipping the preliminary hearing is depriving Pownall of his due process rights. Perri said in court Thursday that Krasner’s office does not want a hearing because prosecutors fear the charges would fall apart.
“We would show he is not guilty of anything at all,” Perri said of Pownall.
More than 100 Philadelphia police officers filled the courtroom Thursday. Some of the officers wore T-shirts that read, “Pownall, we have your back.” During Perri’s spirited remarks, the officers, dozens of whom stood on both sides of the packed rows of seated spectators, could be seen nodding their heads in agreement with Perri’s statements.
“They don’t want the hearing because they don’t want the case in the open light,” he said. “They are hiding behind the presentment,” said Perri, referring to the grand jury presentment. “I hope we don’t learn that they’re hiding behind it because of some unforeseen agenda.”
Perri never returned a request to clarify what he meant, but the head of the Philadelphia police union has accused Krasner of pursuing a anti-law enforcement agenda.
In a statement, a representative from Krasner’s office fought back.
“We have no secret agenda, except to pursue evenhanded justice in every case,” Krasner spokesman Ben Waxman said. “Grand jury investigations routinely result in bypass motions that are approved by the court. All of this is routine.”
In court, Assistant District Attorney Tracey Tripp did not respond to Perri’s allegation that prosecutors are trying to conceal evidence in the case. Instead, she told the judge that holding a preliminary hearing would only delay the trial and repeat the work of the grand jury.
“It’s about the expense and the duplicative effort,” Tripp said.
Common Pleas Judge Robert Coleman noted that Pownall is being charged with criminal homicide, which is vague. It can mean murder, voluntary manslaughter, or involuntary manslaughter.
“I didn’t know what homicide charge you were proceeding on until today,” Coleman told prosecutors. “I don’t know that the grand jury has enough to go with first-degree murder.”
Coleman said he has never denied a request to skip a preliminary hearing. But before he makes a decision, which he said he will do in two weeks, he needs to re-review the grand jury documents and determine whether there is enough evidence to move ahead with everything from murder to involuntary manslaughter.
According to police, Pownall spotted Jones riding a dirt bike illegally in Juniata Park in Northeast Philadelphia on June 8, 2017 and proceeded to stop Jones. Once Pownall pulled Jones over, the officer frisked him and felt a firearm.
A struggle between the two ensued. Authorities say Pownall attempted to shoot Jones during the altercation, but Pownall’s gun jammed. That’s when Jones dropped his weapon and took off on foot. From about 30 feet away, Jones then shot at Jones twice, in the back and the buttocks. Responders rushed Jones to Temple University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
A grand jury determined that Pownall was not in danger and should not have fired his weapon, calling Jones’ death unnecessary.
Investigators recovered Jones’ gun about 25 feet behind where Pownall was standing when he fatally shot Jones, although it is unclear whether Pownell knew Jones’ gun was behind him at the time he discharged two shots.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross fired Pownall over the shooting, saying it represented a violation of department policy.
Perri, Pownall’s lawyer, wrote in a recent legal filing that the murder charges are “an example of how an innocent citizen can be accused of criminality without evidence to support the accusation … Ryan Pownall was legally justified in his actions and the presentment contains no evidence that he committed a crime.”
The judge set Oct. 11 as the next date in the case.