A Philadelphia judge said Thursday he would rule within two weeks on whether a former city police officer charged with murder is entitled to a preliminary hearing.
The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office maintains that no such hearing is needed because an investigative grand jury spent months hearing testimony before recommending charges earlier this month against the former officer, Ryan Pownall, in the death of David Jones. But lawyers representing Pownall, 36, believe he's still entitled to a hearing, which they say would enable them to prove the charges are without merit, freeing their client.
Pownall is the first on-duty Philadelphia officer charged with homicide since 1999. The last officer charged, Christopher DiPasquale, was never tried because manslaughter charges against him for shooting an unarmed teenager were twice dismissed by judges at preliminary hearings.
In a courtroom packed beyond its legal capacity, mostly with police officers supporting Pownall, Common Pleas Court Judge Robert P. Coleman said he needed until Oct. 11 to reread the 1,000-page grand jury report because he wanted to make sure the jury members knew they were voting to recommend that Pownall be charged with first-degree murder. Coleman noted that he was not even aware of that until Thursday's hearing.
"The question is: Is there enough to get to first degree, and I don't know if they considered that," said Coleman, who added that he had never ruled against a request by prosecutors to bypass a preliminary hearing.
"I'm not trying to prolong your torture here, but I have to be fair to both sides," Coleman said to Pownall, who has been jailed without bail since Sept. 4.
In briefs submitted to Coleman prior to the hearing, the opposing legal teams presented clashing views on the need for a preliminary hearing, the step in the criminal justice process when prosecutors bear the burden of establishing that a crime has been committed and that the defendant committed it.
Assistant District Attorney Tracy Tripp clarified during Thursday's hearing that under the count of criminal homicide Pownall is charged with first-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and involuntary manslaughter. Under state law, he is not eligible for bail due to the murder charge.
Tripp, in her briefs to Coleman, wrote that the state Supreme Court has previously ruled that an investigative grand jury presentment is a "constitutionally permissible and reasonable alternative to a preliminary hearing." The grand jury, which was convened April 3, heard testimony from 15 witnesses — police officers and civilians, Tripp told Coleman.
"Simply put, to require lengthy, complex testimony from an investigative grand jury to be repeated, for the sole purpose of establishing probable cause a second time, is not only a waste of scarce judicial resources, but also a repetitious, costly, and superfluous layer of delay before trial," Tripp wrote.
In 2011, Common Pleas Court Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes granted a request from the District Attorney's Office to deny preliminary hearings to abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell and his nine codefendants in the high-profile baby-killing case in which the doctor received a life sentence without parole for delivering premature babies during abortions and then killing them.
In that case, prosecutors argued that a preliminary hearing was not warranted because a grand jury had spent eight months hearing testimony from 63 witnesses and the charges were detailed in a 260-page report.
Pownall's lead attorney, Fortunato Perri Jr., wrote to Coleman that the District Attorney's Office was misreading the law and that his client was entitled to a preliminary hearing as a matter of due process.
If granted a hearing, Perri would prove that Pownall had not committed a crime, the lawyer wrote. During the hearing, Perri accused city prosecutors of trying to hide the murder charge within the grand jury presentment.
"We would ask this court to end this now," Perri told Coleman. "We aren't asking for any charges to be dismissed. Just give him due process."
Police Commissioner Richard Ross fired Pownall in September 2017, citing various departmental policy violations in the fatal shooting of Jones three months earlier.