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Darrell Jones

Other Massachusetts Exonerations
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Guillermo Rodrigues was shot in the stomach at 10:30 p.m. outside D’Angelo’s sandwich shop in Brockton, Massachusetts on November 11, 1985. Rodrigues was 43 years old, a Cuban immigrant who was facing charges of dealing cocaine. It was raining, and witnesses said they had seen a shorter black man push Rodrigues out of Pete & Mary’s bar, then cross Montello Street, a busy street in downtown Brockton, and shoot Rodrigues in the parking lot of D’Angelo’s before running away. Two witnesses, Denise Perkins and Paul Jones, chased the shooter in their car for a few blocks before losing him after he hopped a fence.

The Brockton Police Department was only a block away, and officers quickly responded to the 911 call, which had gone out as a stabbing, not a shooting. When paramedics rolled Rodrigues over, a bullet apparently fell out of his back. He still had his wallet and a gold chain, suggesting that robbery wasn’t the motive. Rodrigues was too weak to give a statement and was rushed to Brockton Hospital. The bullet was taken into evidence and later matched to a .32-caliber pistol recovered on November 12 from the bathroom of the Colonial Spa bar. The bartender there would say a young, black man had come into the bar and quickly left around the time of the shooting. The bartender said he didn’t get a good look at the man, but remembered the incident because the bar had very few black customers.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the police questioned the customers at D’Angelo’s and Pete & Mary’s about what they had seen. They asked Perkins and Jones to survey the crowd outside the bar to see if anybody looked like the shooter. Both Perkins and Jones looked at the group and stated that they did not see the shooter in the crowd.

The next day, Sgt. Fotis Colocousis got a tip from an informant named Robert Allen that Rodrigues had been shot by a young black male with the nickname “Diamond.” According to Allen, “Diamond” was from Boston, had outstanding arrest warrants, carried a .38-caliber pistol, and sold marijuana from Pete & Mary’s. Separately, a confidential informant told another officer that he had also heard that “Diamond” was responsible for the shooting. This informant said that “Diamond” was the name of 18-year-old Darrell Jones. He said Jones was “dangerous and very clever,” and had been supplying a gang called the “Commandos” with weapons.

Despite what the informants said, Jones had no outstanding arrest warrants at the time. But he was in Brockton at the time of the shooting, visiting friends and drinking at Pete & Mary’s. He had taken the bus down from Boston, in part because the bartenders there weren’t sticklers for IDs. He said he had gone outside after the shooting, and even asked an officer what had happened. In addition, an officer would later testify that Darrell Jones was part of the crowd that Perkins and Paul Jones had canvassed for a possible suspect.

Rodrigues died November 14 without giving a statement. There were rumors in Brockton that his allies, so-called “Marielitos,” were coming in from Florida to exact revenge on his shooter. Colocousis and his team continued to interview witnesses, now with a photo of Jones to use in their arrays.

One important set of witnesses was a group of friends – Lisa Pina, Walter Watson, Edna Levine, and Terie Lynn Starks. Pina, Watson and Levine were interviewed on November 17. Some of them said they had seen Rodrigues leave the bar with an unidentified black man, and then as the two men crossed the street, either Starks or Levine said words to the effect of, “It’s Diamond, and he’s got a gun.” They drove off as the shots were being fired. According to a police report, Levine and Pina identified Jones as the shooter. Watson was unable to make an identification.

At about 8 p.m. on November 17, police received a call from Pete & Mary’s. The bartender said that Darrell Jones was there. Police came and arrested him. At the station, Jones was questioned and denied any involvement with the shooting. He was charged with first-degree murder. While there was no physical evidence or motive tying him to the crime, the prosecution’s theory was that Jones had shot Rodrigues, fled and stashed the gun at the Colonial Spa, and then quickly returned to the bar to appear like he had been there all along.

On November 25, Starks was arrested on unrelated charges. She was told that the outstanding warrants could send her to prison for a long time but that she could help herself by cooperating with the police on the shooting. Officers Joseph Smith and Donald LaGarde interviewed her the next day. The interview was videotaped, and in a summary of the interview, LaGarde wrote that Starks said that she knew Jones by sight but not by name or nickname. In addition, she said that Jones and Rodrigues had come out of the back of the bar, not the front, before crossing the street to the sub shop. This contradicted how prosecutors would say Jones and Rodrigues had made their way from the bar to the sub shop.

Jones’s trial began on September 22, 1986 in Plymouth County Superior Court. He was represented by Kenneth Elias, an attorney who was struggling to manage his sprawling practice and trying to tie up an ethics complaint before the state’s Board of Bar Overseers. He also believed in some unorthodox trial methods. Rather than having Jones sit next to him, Elias placed his client in the prisoner’s dock behind him. He told the jurors: “I like to be alone. I don’t want to be distracted. A defendant sometimes gets excited by what’s going on by testimony. Don’t draw any conclusions because he’s there and I’m here.”

On the morning of the third day of the trial, Elias told Judge Christopher Byron that he suddenly realized he had a conflict of interest. At various times, he or his law firm had represented Colocousis, Smith, and LaGarde in civil matters. One of those matters, with LaGarde, was still pending. Byron asked Elias if Jones knew about this, and Elias said he hadn’t had a chance to tell his client. When Elias spoke with Jones, his explanation of these conflicts was much less detailed than what he had told Byron. Jones agreed to have Elias continue representing him, and the trial continued.

Despite the statements they had made to the police, none of the state’s witnesses made an in-court identification of Jones, and the testimony was often conflicting on what was seen and by whom outside the sub shop. Smith tried to clear up the state’s case by testifying that both Pina and Levine had identified Jones as the shooter. He also testified that Starks had picked Jones during her videotaped interview, holding up for the jury what he said was the photo Starks had selected.

Pina testified that she had reluctantly picked a photo because the police repeatedly insisted that she “pick a picture,” and the photo she picked “happened to be” Jones, but that was the extent of her identification. Levine also testified that she had picked Jones out of a photo array, but she clarified that she did so only because the police specifically asked her to pick out “Diamond’s” picture. She never said Diamond was the shooter. She said that Starks had said the shooter was “Diamond.” But Starks testified to just the opposite, that Levine had called out the name just before the shooting. Watson testified that he couldn’t remember who had said what, only that one of the women had said “Darrell Jones” when describing what was unfolding before them.

On September 29, the state entered the video of Starks’s interview with Officers Smith and LaGarde into evidence. Smith testified that this was the actual tape, which was played for the jury. But there was a problem. Partway through, after Starks described seeing a tall man being led across the street by a shorter man, the interview stopped. For 14 seconds, there was a snippet from The Phil Silvers Show, and then the interview continued, with Starks describing the shooting. Missing was any description of the shooter.

The jury was excused and a hearing was held before Judge Byron on whether the video could be used. Smith said that the mistake was an innocent one. He said it had happened in January 1986, when he was playing the tape for Elias at the Brockton Police Academy. During the viewing, Smith said, he had inadvertently pressed “record” instead of “play” and taped a short segment of the TV show.

According to the court transcript, the following conversation took place.

Elias: You mean you recorded something else over that tape while I was there?”

Smith: Right.

Elias: And I knew that?

Smith: Yeah, we discussed it.

Finally, Elias said, “It’s probably immaterial; I don’t even remember it.”

The tape was then played in its entirety for the jury. LaGarde’s memo, which would have pointed out the extent of the gap as well as its contents and undermined the state’s theory of the crime—was not discussed at trial. The memo was found during a public-records request in 2011, and Jones’s appellate attorneys would claim that based on the questions asked by both the prosecutor and Elias it was not disclosed at trial.

Jones did not testify. He had “failed” a lie detector test, and Elias advised him that the results of these tests –although flawed and unreliable -- could have been used to impeach his testimony (In 1989, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the results of polygraph tests were inadmissible in criminal trials. ). Instead, Elias called three alibi witnesses who said Jones had been inside the bar when Rodrigues was shot, although one of them may have undercut his defense because she said that Jones had been talking to Rodrigues earlier that night.

The all-white jury convicted Jones of first-degree murder on October 2, 1986, after three days of deliberations. Jones was sentenced to life without parole.

Jones’ conviction was affirmed on direct appeal. His first two new trial motions, in 1992 and 2000, were both rejected by the Massachusetts courts. On October 23, 2015, Jones filed a third motion for post-conviction relief, this time based on new evidence developed with support from the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) Innocence Program. Jones was represented in his motion by an attorney appointed by CPCS, John J. Barter, along with Innocence Program director Lisa Kavanaugh, and Neil Austin of Foley Hoag. The attorneys also partnered with law students at the Boston College Innocence Program. In the motion, Jones’s legal team stated that forensic experts, using technology not available in 1986, had studied the Starks videotape and concluded that it wasn’t the original tape and that Smith’s account at trial of how it was edited could not possibly be true. Instead, the alterations on the tape were the result of what they called a “crash edit,” where parts of the original were cut and pasted onto another tape. In addition, the 13.5-second segment of the TV show was misleading. The missing section of the Starks interview, the defense experts said, could be anywhere from 18 to 136 seconds.

During an evidentiary hearing, Detective Smith testified that he did not know how the videotape was edited. Significantly, even the video expert retained by the prosecution to analyze the videotaped Starks interview agreed that the edit did not occur in the way Smith claimed at trial.

When Smith himself was confronted with his prior sworn testimony at the original trial testimony, about accidentally pressing the “record” button, he indicated that this was just his “best guess” at the time of trial. He said he didn’t know what had happened, only that someone at the police department had altered the tape. Rather than testify to that, he lied, a judge would conclude.

Jones's new trial motion also asserted that Smith had lied elsewhere in his testimony, when he said that Starks was unaware of Jones’s arrest at the time of her interview. The video shows Starks saying she knew of the arrest because “he told me last night,” motioning to Smith. She reiterated this claim in an affidavit filed with the motion.

In addition, the motion identified numerous grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel by Elias, who died in 2013. It was more than just the physical isolation of his client in the courtroom. Elias had been suspended by the bar in 1997. During a reinstatement hearing in 2003, he acknowledged that his practice had been in shambles during the time he was representing Jones. “In the last year or so, I just got so busy that I’m not sure I was functioning with any sense at all.”

Elias failed to adequately prepare for the trial, spending little time interviewing witnesses or reviewing their police statements. Almost all of the witnesses had described Rodrigues’s shooter as being considerably shorter than the victim. Jones was roughly the same height, but Elias never presented any evidence pointing out this discrepancy, nor did he highlight that the clothing Jones was wearing didn’t match the witness descriptions. The autopsy had stated Rodrigues’s height, and the motion noted that Elias had told the jurors: “I have never seen the autopsy or ballistics report. I don’t care about those.” The motion said that Elias, freighted with real and potential conflicts of interest, had failed to vigorously cross-examine the police about alternate suspects, their investigative methods, and the shifting testimony of the witnesses.

After the motion was filed but before any hearings, WBUR and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting broadcast a radio series on the case. While detailing the videotape problems, the series also uncovered charges of racial bias in the jury room. Juror Eleanor Urbati, who described herself as the last person to vote to convict, said that two jurors had said on the first day of deliberations that they believed Jones was guilty because he was black. While other jurors the reporters interviewed said that didn’t happen, Jones was allowed to amend his motion to include juror bias.

Hearings were held in July and August 2017. On December 18, 2017, Judge Thomas F. McGuire Jr. of Bristol County Superior Court granted Jones a new trial. He said there was sufficient evidence of racial basis by one juror and that Smith had testified falsely about the contents of the videotape. He said the officer had given an “innocent, but false, explanation for the loss of this important evidence.” He rejected Jones’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.

Jones was released from prison on December 21, 2017 on $5,000 bond while he awaited a new trial. Before his first trial, he had turned down a plea deal that would have gotten him out of prison after six years. This time, the prosecutors offered to allow him to plead guilty to manslaughter. Jones again rejected any plea offer.

The retrial began on June 8, 2019. Many of the witnesses had died or refused to testify. In some cases, their testimony from the first trial was read by employees of the prosecutor’s office. Jones’s lead trial attorney, Paul Rudof, told jurors that when Rodrigues was shot, it was dark and raining and many of the witnesses were either drunk or high on drugs, making it difficult for them to get a good look at the shooter’s face. But what they agreed upon, Rudof said, was that the shooter was shorter than Rodrigues, and that Jones didn’t fit that description. On June 11, 2019, the jury – this time with two African-American jurors – acquitted Jones.

Speaking to reporters later, Jones said, “I’m celebrating the fact that I’m free. But I don’t celebrate that they set me free because they shouldn’t have had me anyway.”

Kavanaugh, who also served as co-counsel during the trial, said, “You are innocent, and the world can now see it. No one can ever take that away from you.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 6/20/2019
State:Massachusetts
County:Plymouth
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1985
Convicted:1986
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No