The family of 17-year-old Markell Jones was watching the television news one night in November 2011, authorities say, when the broadcaster introduced surveillance tape footage of the killing of an Army veteran inside a Greenmount Avenue carryout.
Relatives recognized Jones on the tape, authorities say. After talking it over, they called police, and Markell gave a full confession — and a written letter of apology to the victim’s daughter.
It appeared to be a clean, closed case.
Nineteen months later, Jones now 18, took the stand at Baltimore Circuit Court to say that detectives had coerced him into confessing to the killing of Freddie Jones Jr. The 52-year-old airport shuttle driver and veteran, no relation to Markell Jones, was ordering food when he was caught in an aborted robbery and shot to death.
At a pretrial hearing on Monday, attorneys for Markell Jones asked a judge to keep the jury from learning of his confession. They said he didn’t know anything about the case, but was swayed by detectives who told him they were looking out for him.
“I’d never been through this process before,” Jones, a former student at Northwestern High School, told Judge M. Brooke Murdock. “I thought they were really going to help me.”
Jones is one of three individuals believed to have been involved in the Oct. 31, 2011, killing of Freddie Jones, but the only one taken into custody. Relatives say the family has been intimidated, but did not provide details or consent to be identified because, they said, they feared for their safety.
Tensions flared outside the courthouse Monday when relatives confronted a young man who had been sitting in the back of the courtroom by himself. They accused him of being a spy for a gang and recording the proceedings with his cell phone.
“He’s the flunky!” one relative yelled. The sheriff’s office later confirmed that the man’s phone had been confiscated, though they said there was no evidence that he had been recording.
Testimony Monday centered on Markell Jones’ confession. Sgt. James Lloyd said he was summoned to police headquarters at 1:40 a.m. on Nov. 3 after Jones’ family turned him in.
The veteran investigator sat down at a table with his suspect in one of the 12-foot-by-8-foot interview rooms. Markell Jones was given a breakfast sandwich, and later a chicken box with hot sauce, French fries and orange soda.
Lloyd, who had been a youth outreach worker before he became a police officer, said he spoke to Jones of his own tough childhood.
“I told him about the bio of Mr. [Freddie] Jones, as well as his plans about walking his daughter down the aisle one day,” he recalled in court Monday. “I asked him what he would say, and he wrote a letter of apology.”
Markell Jones addressed the letter to Freddie Jones’ daughter, and read it out on the tape.
“I’m sorry for taking your loved one. I feel terrible, and wish I could take it back,” he wrote. “I killed an innocent man and will most likely spend the rest of my life in prison.
“I … take responsibility for my actions. Sincerely, Markell Jones.”
On a tape of the confession played in court, Jones explains that he and two unidentified boys were “looking for a way to get some money.” He says he acquired a gun and obtained bullets from a friend. No one else has been charged in the case.
“We figured we would rob somebody,” he says.
He describes entering the Yau Brothers carryout in the 2900 block of Greenmount Avenue. He says Freddie Jones struggled with one of the other boys, and says he fired three times.
They came away with less than $10.
The three then ran out of the carryout and across the street, Markell says, and he dumped the gun in a grassy area next to a McDonald’s. The other suspects ran off in separate directions, and he jumped into a “hack,” an unlicensed taxi cab.
Police released surveillance video of the shooting to local news organizations. It shows three masked men — one of them wearing a Santa Claus hat — enter the carryout as Freddie Jones talks on a cell phone.
The killing was one of four at Yau Brothers between 2009 and 2011. Neighbors held marches and demanded the carryout be shut down.
Police say Markell’s family recognized him on the surveillance tape and his grandfather called 911. Police came to their home, took the boy out in handcuffs and placed him in an interview room. His family was transported downtown as well, and they waited in a separate room.
In court on Monday, Markell said police did not tell him why they were arresting him. He said he went to sleep in the holding cell while waiting to be interviewed.
When the detectives began the interview, he said they asked if he knew why he was there.
“I told them I didn’t know what they was talking about,” he testified. “I asked for a lawyer, and they told me I couldn’t have a lawyer. They said to help myself while I still can.”
The other detective involved in the interview was Daniel T. Nicholson IV. Nicholson was charged last month with second-degree assault and fourth-degree burglary in connection with a search for his missing daughter.
Markell Jones and his mother testified that police made promises or told them what to say before their taped statements were recorded.
Homicide detectives in Baltimore often conduct lengthy interviews with suspects before recording their concise statements on cassette tapes. Detectives in other jurisdictions videotape the entire interview.
City police have said that they are moving toward extended videotaped interviews, but said Monday that they do not yet have the technology in place in the homicide unit.
Defense attorney Robert Linthicum asked Lloyd about the stretch of time the boy waited in a homicide interrogation room by himself — about four hours — and questioned his interrogation tactics.
“The fact that [the victim] couldn’t walk his daughter down the aisle, that doesn’t have anything to do with the case, does it?” Linthicum asked.
“It has a lot to do with the case.”
“Is it common to elicit sympathy for the victim’s family?”
“It’s common for me to sustain a relationship” with the suspect, Lloyd responded.
“Is that part of your training?” Linthicum asked.
“Sir, that’s what I do as a man,” Lloyd said.
Markell’s mother, Lakisha Jones, said the boy’s grandfather had asked her to sit in a car outside her home while waiting for the police to arrive. She said officers rushed into the house with shields and guns.
“I said, ‘There is no reason to come to my house like that, because my son didn’t do nothing wrong,’” she testified.
She said police did not inform her about what was happening at headquarters, and her requests for a lawyer were ignored
She said she was aware that people in the neighborhood were saying Markell might have been involved in the shooting, but she testified she hadn’t watched the news that night.
Assistant State’s Attorney Nicole Lomartire produced a transcript of the taped portion of Lakisha’s interview with the detectives, in which she told them, “I think I saw my son on [channel] 45 news.”
“In the document, it says you saw your son on the news,” Murdock interjected. “Are you denying that you said that?”
She flipped through the transcript and sighed heavily.
“Yes — I’m denying it,” Jones said.
According to the transcript, Lakisha Jones told the detectives that she saw Markell on the news and started “yelling and screaming.” She began gathering up her five other kids to take them to the home of a relative.
Lomartire asked why she would do that if she hadn’t known what was going on.
“If my son did confess … If something was going to happen, I didn’t want his brothers and sisters to see that,” she testified.
According to the transcript, she said that Markell’s father had taken the boy aside, telling him they were going to call police so they could question him about the murder.
“I was told to say it,” she testified, and threw her hands in the air.
After testifying, she shuffled out of the courtroom and covered her face, sobbing audibly.
Murdock is expected to hear more pretrial motions on Tuesday.The trial is set to begin next week.