If you Google the name Jabir Kennedy, you will read about a fugitive wanted for gunning down four men, one fatally, during Christmas week 2017 in the Elmwood section of Southwest Philadelphia. You will read that the “armed and dangerous” fugitive turned himself in a week later and was charged with first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder.

That’s all you’ll read about Kennedy, 23, because in a city that typically tallies more than 300 murders and more than 1,000 nonfatal shootings a year, his case quickly disappeared from the news cycle.

So when the case reached its conclusion this month, there were no headlines for what turned out to be a rarity in the criminal justice system: an admitted gunman in a quadruple shooting acquitted by a jury of all charges.

Kennedy’s weeklong trial at the Criminal Justice Center, which ended March 15, focused not on Stand Your Ground or the Castle Doctrine, but instead on old-fashioned self-defense, his lawyer said.

“This was a fascinating case to me. It is truly the first homicide self-defense case that I ever tried,” said David Nenner, a Center City lawyer for 34 years. “It’s rare.”

Kennedy, a former car detailer from Elmwood with no criminal record, rejected a plea deal from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office that would have sent him to state prison for 17½ to 34 years. He said he opted to put his fate in the hands of a jury because he believed testifying about what happened that night in the 6600 block of Dorel Street in Elmwood, where he lived, would set him free.

Jabir Kennedy, 23, acquitted in the shootings of four men, one fatally, smiles in his lawyer's Center City Philadelphia office Thursday, March 21, 2019.
Jabir Kennedy, 23, acquitted in the shootings of four men, one fatally, smiles in his lawyer's Center City Philadelphia office Thursday, March 21, 2019.

“I knew I was only guilty of wanting to live. That’s all I knew,” Kennedy said during an interview last week in his lawyer’s office. “I just felt like, these guys came — I don’t know what they came to do — but they came with guns. And people were yelling, ‘Shoot him!’ and stuff like that. I’m just glad I got out of there with my life.”

Assistant District Attorney Sheida Ghadiri argued during the trial that the gun Kennedy fired belonged to him, that he knew how to use it given that he shot four of the five men he fought with, and the number of bullets he fired — eight to 10 — was too many to be self-defense.

But a key moment in the trial, Kennedy and Nenner said, came when Ghadiri was cross-examining Kennedy about why he fired repeatedly at the men.

“Ms. Ghadiri, what did you want me to do?” both recalled him saying. “I don’t understand. You want me to die? You want my mom to come see me with a hole in my head in the middle of the street? That’s not reasonable.”

The DA’s Office stands by its decision to prosecute Kennedy, said Ben Waxman, the office’s spokesperson.

Five against one

Kennedy’s troubles on Dec. 21, 2017, started at 8:30 p.m., an hour before the shootings. While dropping off his 3-year-old daughter at the Southwest home of her mother, Matrea Thomas, an argument turned physical.

He says he shoved her after she grabbed him. Thomas, 23, called a male cousin, then another male cousin, and accused Kennedy of slamming her to the concrete basement floor and choking her. Within minutes, Malik Thomas-Thornton, 23, the second relative whom she had called, and his friends Linwood Garrett, 33, Quinzel Washington, 23, and Alijah M. Brown, 23, arrived at her home. The five quickly piled into a car and headed for Kennedy’s house.

They arrived at Dorel Street about the same time as Allen Ingram, 23, the other cousin, who was in a car driven by his girlfriend.

“I did what any girl would do if somebody just put their hands on her and she calls her protectors,” Thomas testified at Kennedy’s preliminary hearing.

After spotting Kennedy walking near his house, the five men bailed out of the cars and began to fight him, forcing him up a neighbor’s front steps, and pinning him in a corner, according to trial testimony.

Nenner argued that the group had brought a pair of brass knuckles, which police later recovered in the street, and two guns, one that was not fired and that police recovered and a second that was used to beat Kennedy over the head and that he wrested control of and fired repeatedly in the darkness.

Ingram was shot in the back and died hours later. A gun fell from his pants as his girlfriend and Thomas tried to lift him into his car, Thomas testified.

Thomas-Thornton, Garrett, and Washington were shot but recovered. Brown ran from the scene and was not injured. The four surviving men each testified that the gun Kennedy used to kill Ingram did not belong to them.

Police never recovered that gun.

Pennsylvania law justifies using force when someone “believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force."

Massad Ayoob, a Florida-based expert and author whose firm conducts self-defense classes around the country, said Kennedy’s actions were a textbook example of self-defense.

“The key elements to a successful self-defense plea are that you’re in a situation of immediate, unavoidable danger of death or great bodily harm that you did not provoke,” Ayoob said in a telephone interview. “To create that situation, you need three elements simultaneously present: ability, opportunity, and jeopardy.”

Ability means your opponent has the power to kill or cripple, opportunity means the opponent is capable of immediately employing that power, and jeopardy means the opponent is manifesting by word or action the intent to cause you serious bodily harm or kill you, he said.

“All three of those are present, and would justify [Kennedy’s] use of deadly force against every member of the group that’s attacking him,” Ayoob said.

Two veteran Center City criminal defense attorneys not involved in the case agreed, also noting the rarity of a defendant exonerated after being charged with shooting four people.

“I can’t think of anything offhand like this,” said Michael Diamondstein. “This guy is just trying to live his life, and four or five people start beating him up. If you’re going to engage in that type of behavior, you’re going to assume the risk of getting hurt.”

Patrick Link said that it was appropriate for Kennedy not to be “criminally punished for doing what anyone else would do, which is protect himself.”

Kennedy spent 15 months jailed without bail awaiting trial and said he now wants to get his life back. That includes finding a job, reestablishing a relationship with his now 5-year-old daughter, and trying to come to terms with those headlines about his arrest.

“They assassinated my character,” he said. “I felt really bad about that. I couldn’t eat or sleep. They painted me as all bad news.”