Former Philadelphia police officer Ryan Pownall, the first cop to be charged with murder in nearly two decades, was released Thursday after posting $50,000 bail as he awaits trial on a reduced charge — third-degree murder rather than first degree.
Common Pleas Judge Robert Coleman’s decision to reduce the charges and allow bail is a blow to District Attorney Larry Krasner. The district attorney had hoped to keep Pownall in jail until his trial and had sought first-degree charges over the death of David Jones.
In June 2017, Pownall pulled Jones over for riding a dirt bike illegally in North Philadelphia. Pownall found a weapon as he searched Jones, leading to a standoff between the two. Jones tossed his gun to ground and ran. Prosecutors say Pownall then shot Jones twice in the back, killing him.
After Thursday’s hearing, Jones’ family and friends expressed frustration over the reduced charge and Pownall’s release on 10 percent of his $500,000 bail.
“Today that judge gave Pownall a temporary pass. He allowed him to go home to his family and friends,” said Donna Clement-Jackson, Jones’ godmother.
When the case was presented to the grand jury, prosecutors asked that Pownall be charged with criminal homicide, a broad category that includes a range of charges up to and including first-degree murder, a charge not eligible for bail. Prosecutors argued that the jury at Pownall’s trial should assess the facts and determine whether he is guilty of a range of murder charges.
On Thursday, though, the judge narrowed the jury’s focus: The panel now will consider only whether Pownall is guilty of third-degree murder, which covers both an intentional “heat of passion” killing and causing death unintentionally out of negligence or recklessness.
John McNesby, president of the city’s largest police union, saluted Coleman’s rulings.
“Officer Pownall looks forward to returning to his family,” he said. “And again, we believe Officer Pownall will be cleared of all charges after a fair-minded jury hears all the facts of the case.”
For those who have rallied behind Jones’ family and agitated for first-degree charges, it was a dispiriting move.
“You really gave this man third-degree?” said a tearful Rowena Faulk, a David Jones activist, after the hearing. “He’s really going to eat Thanksgiving dinner while David is in the ground?”
Last week, the city of Philadelphia agreed to pay $1 million to the family of Jones over Pownall’s actions. The deal was brokered out of court and was resolved without the Jones family filing a civil suit against the city.
Top police officials, who also have condemned the shooting, suspended Pownall from the force. He had served as an officer for 12 years.
Coleman also Thursday granted a request from prosecutors to skip over the preliminary hearing and proceed to trial.
Coleman was not convinced by Pownall’s defense lawyers who argued that bypassing the preliminary hearing would violate the former officer’s rights.
The hearing is often seen by defense attorneys as a chance to try to find holes in the prosecution’s case and attempt to derail the charges. But prosecutors said the hearing, which would involve multiple witnesses and putting on other evidence, would be costly and unnecessary since the judge had already decided there is enough evidence to put the case in front of a jury.
“This is a major victory for justice because we are proceeding to trial,” said Krasner spokesman Ben Waxman. “Nearly 20 years ago, judges twice tossed murder charges against the last on-duty officer who was charged with homicide. Judge Coleman’s ruling today means that history will not repeat itself, and a jury will hear all the evidence in the case.”
Waxman’s statement did not address the judge’s downgrading the charges and allowing Pownall to post bail, saying the office is “still reviewing” those decisions.