Leader Blues

Monday, March 02, 2009

TOP STORY >> Guilty verdict in a shooting

By ERIC FRANCIS
Special to The Leader

Daud Amir Jones loved Meloney Graham. That one fact was not in dispute as he went on trial for her murder.

Almost everything else, however, was disputed by the prosecution and defense – especially Jones’ own version of events in Jacksonville from the night of April 20, 2008: That the fatal gunshot to the back of his pregnant girlfriend’s head was an accident, a misfire caused when he dropped a pistol he’d recently taken away from her while they were arguing.

In the end, the jury of seven women and five men didn’t accept his explanation, and they convicted Jones of one count of first-degree murder. Yet they didn’t opt for the maximum sentence of 40 years prosecutor Will Jones sought, or the 10-year minimum that public defender Bill Simpson urged for. Instead, they took the middle ground: 20 years, plus a five-year enhancement for using a handgun in the crime, to be served in the Arkansas Department of Correction. A second count of first-degree murder, for the death of the fetus, was set aside by the judge earlier in what was called a directed verdict.

As Judge Marion Humphrey read the jury’s sentence at midday on Thursday, Jones showed the same demeanor he had during a day and a half of testimony, including his own – calm, still, quiet, with no overt show of emotion.

There was no shortage of emotion for many who sat through – or took part in – the day and a half of testimony that started Tuesday afternoon. And as Jones was led away in handcuffs by a bailiff, there were quiet tears among both those who had come to support his case and those who had come to seek his conviction.

ACTIONS VS. EVIDENCE

Although other people were in the house late on the night of April 20, nobody actually saw Jones shoot Graham. Both sides agreed on a general series of events.

In the garage of their Pike Avenue house, 31-year-old Jones had drunk four 20 or 24 oz. beers – “Hurricane High Gravity, 8.1 percent alcohol by volume,” he testified – and then gone to bed.

Graham, who was 25 and 17 weeks pregnant with Jones’ son, was angry because she believed he had been seeing other girls behind her back. She went into the bedroom, woke him up and they started arguing.

Two teenage friends of the couple who were in the house that night could testify to seeing that much. But after Lauren McMann retreated to the kitchen and Kevin Winston to the den, having swept up the couple’s infant son from the bedroom where Jones and Graham were arguing, they didn’t see what happened in the next few minutes.

The raised voices – mostly Graham’s – were heard for a few minutes, then the bedroom door opened and Graham was heard coming out into the hallway, followed by Jones. There, near the room where their 10-year-old daughter slept, Graham was heard to say to Jones, as McMann recalled: “If that makes you a better man, I don’t care. Shoot me.”

A single gunshot was heard. Then the sound of Graham’s body hitting the floor. Then the sound of Jones going back into the bedroom.

Winston – who recounted Graham’s last words as “I don’t care. Shoot me, shoot me” – said at that point he glanced back into the hallway and “saw her feet drop.” Then both he and McMann fled outside.

There McMann ran into neighbor David Garner, 18, who had been at the couple’s house earlier. He went into the house where he found Jones in the hall cradling Graham’s body.

He would testify that he asked what happened and Jones told him, “I don’t know,” and asked him to take his daughter out of the house and call the police.

Waking up the 10-year-old in the next room, Garner made sure to take her out through the kitchen, so she wouldn’t see her mother’s body on the hallway floor.

When the Jacksonville Police Department arrived minutes later, the first officer to enter the house – Officer Chris Gallluppo, a four-year veteran – tried to ascertain if the shooter was still in the vicinity. “Who did this?” he told the court he asked Jones, and said the man replied, “I did it.”

Hours later, at the Jacksonville Police Department, Jones gave a recorded statement in which he offered this series of events: Awakened by Graham slapping him on the face, he awoke to find she’d taken a silver .380 semi-automatic pistol out of the closet, where he kept it inside a holster, which in turn was inside a knitted sock.

On the recording, he indicated the gun was still in the sock, and Graham was waving it around but not pointing it at him. When she left the bedroom, he said, he followed her and took the gun away from her, and as he turned to take it back to the bedroom he dropped it and it fired. Not aware she had been hit, he picked it up, put it back in the bedroom closet, and came out to find Graham on the floor.

When he took the stand on Wednesday, Jones would contradict that statement by saying Graham had the gun out of the sock when they were in the bedroom, and after he took it from her in the hallway it was while he was trying to put it back in the sock that it fell, fired and she was struck.

EXPERTS AND EMOTIONS

The prosecution opened their case on Tuesday after lunch by calling Jacksonville police and experts from the state Crime Lab. Officers Galluppo and Cynthia Wilemon testified to what they found when they arrived at the scene, with Wilemon also stating she “heard the defendant say he shot her.” It was Wilemon who found the gun, loaded and with a round in the chamber, in the knit sock on the top shelf of the bedroom closet. Jamal Harkaday, a Sherwood police detective who was a Jacksonville officer at the time, processed and documented the crime scene, noting he found the empty holster on the bed “in plain view.”

Prosecutors Will Jones (no relation to defendant) and Kelly Ward tried to debunk Jones’ version of events by calling upon a firearms expert from the crime lab, Steve Hargis, who handled the inspection of the .380 semi-automatic pistol used in the shooting. Hargis testified that he struck the gun with a rubber mallet in several places to simulate a drop to the floor.

“It never fired when struck,” Hargis said.

In cross-examination, public defender Simpson asked why Hargis had not actually dropped the gun during the tests; to avoid damaging it, Hargis replied. Simpson asked Hargis if there was a chance that the gun could go off if dropped, to which Hargis replied yes, but “that would be a very slim chance.”

Dr. Frank Peretti, who performed the autopsy, testified that the wound made by the bullet was “a nice, round hole,” which he said indicated a straight-on entry. Challenged by Simpson as to whether such a wound could be from a bullet fired by a dropped gun, Peretti was adamant:

“If the gun was dropped, the entry wound would be different,” he said, because it was likely the angle of entry would not be straight-on. However, he also acknowledged that he could not predict the path of the bullet or position of Graham’s body at the time of the shooting.

The first day’s testimony concluded with a playing of the recorded statement Jones had made at police headquarters, overseen by Lt. Martin Cass.

Wednesday morning, the state presented perhaps its most compelling witness: 17-year-old Lauren McMann, who in the hallway before the trial began was stretched out on one of the benches, clearly nervous, being calmed by prosecutor Jones.

On the stand, clutching tissues and constantly dabbing at tears amid restrained sobs, McMann told the jury that her cousin Meloney Graham had been more like an older sister to her, someone she’d looked up to. She said she’d often lived with Graham and Jones.

McMann described being in the garage with Winston, then her boyfriend, and Graham after Jones had drunk his beers and headed for bed. They smoked some marijuana after he left, she said.

Jones had left his cell phone in the garage and when it rang, Graham suspected it was a girl calling for Jones. When a second call came, McMann said Graham convinced Winston to answer and pretend to be Jones; it was, indeed, a girl calling, and that upset Graham, who went into the house to confront her boyfriend.

Both McMann and Winston followed, but aside from his retrieving the baby from the bedroom they stayed out of the confrontation.

“I just looked at them, because I didn’t get into their business and they didn’t get into our business,” she told prosecutor Ward.

Breaking into sobs, she re-counted the next few minutes, with the raised voices, the steps in the hallway, Graham’s last words and the gunshot. After that, she fled the house because she was scared, McMann said.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Simpson asked if McMann had seen Graham shoot the gun before. As it turned out, from McMann’s testimony and that of others, it wasn’t uncommon for either of the two to have it out, maybe just holding it, leaving it on a table, or even shooting it. McMann said she’d seen Graham shoot it “on holidays and birthdays.”

He also pressed her on the kind of person Jones – “D” to his friends – was. “Is he a good person?” Simpson asked her.

“He was,” said McMann, in tears.

“Was?” asked Simpson.

“He’s not now because he killed my cousin!” she said, her voice breaking.

Then Simpson asked if he had seen Jones shoot her.

“No, but I heard it.”

“So you don’t know?” he prompted.

“No,” she said. “Nobody knows.”

The prosecution called Winston next, whose testimony largely echoed what McMann had said, though he added under Simpson’s cross-examination that when he ducked into the bedroom to get the baby, Jones still looked drunk. Winston also testified that he believed Jones loved Graham and was a good person.

“He paid the bills, he took care of his children,” he said.

DEFENSE ON OFFENSE

With the jury out, Simpson promptly asked the judge to issue a directed verdict on the two murder counts, which would effectively clear his client of all charges.
A directed verdict is where the judge makes a finding of law, as opposed to a finding of fact, which is the jury’s job. Essentially, the judge declares the state has not made its case proving the defendant committed the offense with which he is charged – in this case, first-degree murder of a fetus.

Simpson’s argument was straightforward: There was no way to know if the fetus was still alive at the time of Graham’s murder, therefore there was no way to overcome reasonable doubt, the standard for conviction. Judge Humphrey initially ruled in favor of Simpson’s motion.

After the lunch break, however, the prosecution convinced Humphrey to let them reopen their case and have medical examiner Peretti offer additional testimony. He said his autopsy of the fetus revealed no indication it wasn’t alive at the time of the shooting.

That victory for the prosecution was short-lived, however, as Humphrey ultimately reissued his directed verdict on the fetal murder charge, taking it off the table.

The defense opened its case with Jones on the stand. A slender man with close-cropped hair and moustache, he had spent the first day and a half of the trial sitting between the two deputy public defenders, Christine Hendrickson and Brooke Thompson. He wore the same outfit each day: A black suit with a dark red shirt and black tie. Jones watched the proceedings quietly and with no outward sign of emotion.

On the stand, his demeanor didn’t change. He answered questions in a steady voice, mostly without hesitation, and never really displayed any concern for his situation – a man facing up to 40 years in prison.

Jones first recounted the story of his life: A Washington, D.C., native, he did much of his growing up in Maryland. That’s where he first met Graham, when she was a young teenager, several years his junior; they rarely parted after that. She gave birth to their first child, a daughter, at age 15, and shortly after that he moved in with her and her mother, Peggy Graham.

They first came to Arkansas a few years later when their second child, a boy, who needed a heart transplant. Their return to Maryland was brief, as the boy was sick again. They came back to Arkansas, but he died in 2007. The couple had another son afterward.

Altogether, they had lived with each other for 10 years, he said.

Under Simpson’s questioning, Jones recounted his side of the story; again, the salient details were almost identical to those of the prosecution’s witnesses up to the point where they shut the bedroom door as they argued. Again, as he had in the statement to police, he insisted it was an accident, that he dropped the gun and it went off.

But there were other inconsistencies. Where Winston had said Graham slapped him with her empty hand, Jones said that hand was already holding the gun – which he had told Jacksonville police was still in the knit sock. He also said he didn’t recall her saying anything like “shoot me” to him.

Several times during his testimony, he acknowledged that he was “responsible” for Graham’s death, and just as many times he insisted it was an accident.

On cross-examination, prosecutor Will Jones lit into the defendant over those contradictions, especially how his story changed from the taped statement. Was the gun in the knit sock when he took it from Graham? If so, where was the bullet hole from when it fired? When Daud Jones insisted he dropped the gun while trying to put it in the sock, the prosecutor pushed him to explain how, exactly, the bullet could have gone around or through him to hit Graham.

Jones replied that he had the gun to his side when he dropped it. The prosecutor also maintained that Graham would’ve been facing Jones while they argued and he walked way – did the misfired bullet somehow travel around her head and hit the back of her skull?

He also brought up the defendant’s calm demeanor, both in the courtroom and back on the night of the incident, when he was at the police department.

The prosecutor recalled the recorded statement on which Jones asked how Graham was, and the investigator replied she was dead:

Jones’ surprised response sounded a little too disingenuous for the prosecutor. And he pointed out that Jones had mentioned going to sleep in a room at the police department before his statement. Is that, the prosecutor asked, the behavior of a man who just hours before was cradling the woman he loved, the mother of his children, as she lay on the floor with a bullet wound?

DEFENDANT'S FRIENDS

The defense called three people to testify on Daud Jones’ behalf: David Garner, the friend who came in after the shooting and called police; Sheila Russell, Graham’s aunt and a neighbor across the street; and Peggy Graham, mother of the dead woman.

Next to McMann’s, Peggy Graham’s testimony was perhaps the most powerful of the trial.

She made it clear she believed the young man who had courted her daughter, who had grown up under her roof for so many years in Maryland, who had fathered her grandchildren, would not have intentionally killed Graham.

Asked by Simpson if Jones was a violent or nonviolent person, Peggy Graham said nonviolent. And when Simpson asked what she based that opinion on, she said, “On my being there.”

Visibly upset during her testimony, wiping tears and occasionally struggling for composure, Peggy Graham acknowledged that her daughter had called her on April 20 and said she was angry because of rumors Jones had been cheating on her.

She talked about going to stay with her father for a couple of weeks. She also said she had seen her daughter with a handgun once, though she’d never seen her shoot it.

When Will Jones stepped up to cross-examine her, Peggy Graham’s eyes narrowed; her dislike of him was palpable.

One exchange in particular highlighted that, after the prosecutor established she’d spoken with Daud Jones weekly since her daughter’s death.

“Everybody talks about what a loving, sweet person your daughter was,” Will Jones said. “So I guess in my mind, and I think the jury would have this question as well, why would you be here testifying on behalf of the person who ended her life, and telling other people not to testify [against him]?”

“First of all,” she snapped back, “he loved my daughter and he loved me. Secondly, he didn’t take her life. And I didn’t tell anybody not to talk to you. I don’t want to talk to you.”

Graham said she’d only told others — McMann and Garner – that they didn’t have to talk unless they were subpoenaed. She said she’d overheard prosecutor Jones talking to another witness, who had a cell phone on speaker, saying things about her that she found objectionable.

The prosecutor pressed on. “Were you asked to allow them” – again meaning McMann and Garner – “to come to our office and speak to us as well?”

“No, you asked to speak to me,” she snapped back. “You made me mad and I didn’t want to speak to you.”

And when he continued to say she tried to keep either McMann or Garner from testifying, she lashed out again.

“Why would I put bad thoughts in her [McMann’s] head” about Daud Jones, she asked.

That exchange ended Peggy Graham’s testimony, and the defense’s case. There was more than an hour for closing arguments – the prosecution again urging that “actions speak louder than words,” the defense reminding jurors of the state’s “high burden of proof” – and jury instructions, the judge allowed the jury to put off deliberation until Thursday morning at 8:30 a.m.

That deliberation didn’t take overly long. The verdict of guilty on the first-degree murder charge was delivered in about two hours.

After hearing the prosecution and defense urge them to apply, respectively, the maximum and minimum prison sentences, the jury deliberated another hour before returning, at 12:07 p.m., a midway sentence of 20 years.

With the handgun enhancement of five years and credit for 312 days already served, it amounted to more than 24 years total.

Before reading the sentence, the judge had admonished those in the courtroom that no outbursts would be tolerated – but there were no outbursts at all.

As the defendant was led away and the jurors filed out, the friends of both Meloney Graham and Daud Amir Jones, clustered in their respective camps, sniffled, wiped tears and spoke quietly, just as they had for the last two and a half days.