By Mensah M. Dean
A Philadelphia judge Thursday downgraded a murder charge against former Philadelphia police officer Ryan Pownall in the controversial June 2017 on-duty shooting death of David Jones, 30, ensuring that Pownall will stand trial for third-degree murder instead of first-degree murder.
The ruling by Common Pleas Court Judge Robert P. Coleman was made without explanation in a Criminal Justice Center courtroom packed mostly with supporters of Pownall, 36, the first on-duty Philadelphia officer since 1999 to be charged with homicide.
Coleman also ruled that the grand jury that recommended criminal charges for Pownall in September had heard enough evidence to bypass a preliminary hearing, as requested by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.
The ruling allows Pownall to be freed to await trial on charges that his supporters say are meritless. John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, has called the prosecution of Pownall an “absurd disgrace.”
The judge set bail at 10 percent of $500,000, and said Pownall would be on house arrest until trial. He would be allowed to leave his home only to meet with his lawyers and attend worship services, and for approved medical appointments.
Pownall did not attend Thursday’s hearing. Online court records indicate that Pownall, who has been jailed in Chester County, posted bail shortly after Thursday’s hearing. His formal arraignment is scheduled for Oct. 25.
Pownall, a 12-year Police Department veteran, shot Jones in the back as Jones fled from a traffic stop in North Philadelphia. Jones had a gun when Pownall pulled him over for riding an illegal dirt bike, authorities said, but the weapon fell to the ground before Jones started running away. Surveillance video showed Jones running with his hands held above his head before being shot in the back and falling to the ground.
Assistant District Attorney Tracy Tripp opposed bail for Pownall, who turned himself in Sept. 4 and has been jailed since. Coleman warned that any violation of the bail terms would result in a return to jail.
Coleman’s ruling brought relief to Pownall’s supporters, who filled the gallery seats, and frustration to Jones’ survivors and supporters seated in the jury box.
City prosecutors and the defense team found different things to celebrate.
“This is a major victory for justice because we are proceeding to trial,” the DA’s Office said in a statement. “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.”
The statement said the office was “still reviewing the rest of Judge Coleman’s rulings. We respect the integrity and independence of the judiciary and have no further comment at this time.”
Meanwhile, Pownall’s attorney, Fortunato Perri Jr., said his client was looking forward to trial.
Perri told reporters in front of the courthouse:
“We look forward to having the opportunity to present his case to a fair-minded jury, and we’re satisfied that when we have that opportunity a jury will find that Ryan Pownall was justified in his actions on the day of this incident and he’ll be found not guilty.”
Pownall’s supporters declined to speak to reporters and left the courthouse through a column formed by uniformed bicycle officers. “I feel wonderful!” shouted one woman, who said she was Pownall’s cousin.
“This is insane, this is insane,” Rowena Faulk, a Jones supporter, bellowed on the sidewalk after the hearing. “How do you have somebody on video running and kill them, and you get bail so low, you can get out? If it was my son, he wouldn’t see the street ever. It’s not fair.”
Faulk, 54, a day-care center owner from Drexel Hill, said the judge’s ruling showed “why the world is so messed up right now, because we are not making people accountable. I don’t care if he’s a cop. There are bad cops and there are good cops. He was a terrible cop. He had the most complaints.”
Faulk added that she did not know Jones but has followed the case in the media. “I’m standing here as a human being who knows that justice needs to be served for somebody who can’t fight for themselves,” she said.
Donna Clement-Jackson, 49, Jones’ godmother, said the judge had given Pownall “a temporary pass. He allowed him to go home to his family and friends, but we know God’s delay is not a denial, and we still stand in our faith, and we stand fast that justice will be done. And we know that once it goes to trial, no matter what happens between now and then, he will be found guilty.”
Jones’ mother, Doretha Crosby, stood beside Clement-Jackson. “I’m just taking everything in,” she said, declining to answer questions. Last week, city officials announced they had agreed to pay Crosby $1 million to prevent her from filing suit over her son’s death.