A Philadelphia Judge Dismissed All Murder Charges Against Ex-cop Ryan Pownall

On Tuesday, a judge in Philadelphia dismissed all charges against ex-city police officer Ryan Pownall, finding that prosecutors had failed to deliver sufficient legal instructions to a grand jury as it considered whether to charge him with murder in a 2017 on-duty killing.

After grand jurors in the historic case were educated by the District Attorney’s Office and unanimously authorized a presentment recommending murder charges, Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara A. McDermott noted there were “so many things wrong.”

A Philadelphia Judge Dismissed All Murder Charges Against Ex-cop Ryan Pownall
A Philadelphia Judge Dismissed All Murder Charges Against Ex-cop Ryan Pownall

In a preliminary hearing, McDermott argued that the prosecution had neglected to notify the jury about the circumstances under which police officers are permitted to use deadly force. She questioned how the grand jury could function without that information.

She criticized the prosecution for a number of additional mistakes, noting that “I would deem them incompetent” if a defense attorney had acted similarly before her.

She summed up her criticism of the text by saying, “You cannot rely on the presentment.” Thereafter, she made a motion to have all charges dropped.

Because of its longstanding emphasis on prosecuting police malfeasance, District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office received a severe criticism in this ruling. Pownall was the first city cop in 20 years to be charged with murder for a gunshot that occurred while he was on duty.

Pownall and his backers, some of whom were present in the courtroom on Tuesday, were ecstatic with the verdict. The prosecution, according to his lawyers Fortunato Perri Jr., Brian McMonagle, and Charles Gibbs, was a “travesty of justice,” and Krasner’s office had manipulated a grand jury without regard to the facts or the law.

After Pownall’s charges were dropped, the president of the police officers’ union, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, John McNesby, termed the situation a “utter disgrace” and pledged to begin working to have Pownall returned to the force.

As they left the courthouse, the prosecutors refused to comment. They can submit an appeal of Judge McDermott’s decision or try to have the charges refiled, but doing so would basically mean starting the case over again when it was only weeks away from a long-delayed trial.

We strongly disagree on many levels with the court’s ruling today in this issue,” Jane Roh, a spokesman for the DA’s Office, said in a statement. “We will be considering our options in the coming days.”

On Tuesday, Gloria Jones, David Jones’s mother, told by phone that she and the rest of the family strongly disagreed with McDermott’s finding and that they found the case’s collapse to be “terrible.” Pownall shot David Jones during a traffic check in North Philadelphia in 2017.

Jones’ mother remarked of her children, Jones’ siblings, “They believe in this world, there’s no justice for them.”

The incident that led to Pownall’s prosecution began when he stopped Jones for riding a dirt bike on the street, frisked him, and discovered a revolver in his waistband. According to police reports at the time, Jones and Pownall fought over the gun before Jones managed to get away and get shot by Pownall in the back.

Within a short time of the incident, Pownall was no longer a member of the police. After a year-long investigation, a grand jury recommended the charges that were filed against him in 2018. These included first-degree murder and possession of a criminal instrument (a judge later downgraded the case to third-degree murder).

On Tuesday, a hearing focused on the presentment and how prosecutors monitored it.

In a move to dismiss the case, Pownall’s lawyers said that the grand jurors hadn’t been properly instructed on the law before voting to authorize the presentment. According to the lawyers, the panelists were never briefed on the gradations of murder, nor were they made aware of the statute that defines when and how police officers may use deadly force.

Perri, one of the attorneys, stated, “[Pownall’s] due process was being violated,” and added, “The record is unambiguous.”

Pownall’s case already had a substantial focus on the use-of-force law. As the trial approached in 2019, the prosecution requested special directions from McDermott regarding a provision of the statute that was at odds with state law.

Because McDermott did not, the prosecution filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. This year, the Supreme Court upheld McDermott’s ruling, holding that the prosecution had picked the incorrect forum (Pownall’s trial) to challenge the constitutionality of the use-of-force statute.

 

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