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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Leroy Jones does not have a college degree. He never graduated high school. He's got a criminal record, and he's black. Hell, he could stand to lose a few pounds. Tough shakes, all, in this unforgiving world. Obviously the system was built to underestimate a man like Jones.
And there's nothing that the T-shirt-and-shorts-clad Jones delights in more than proving that such underestimation occurs at great risk. That's how Jones went from being an ex-con with a drug problem to a community activist, to a more powerful community activist, to a power broker. He founded the grassroots agitators Brothers of the Same Mind, and Neighbors and Neighbors Association (NANA), a coalition of inner-city businesses. That's how he earned the county's medal of merit, warranting June 2, 1998, as "Leroy Jones Day." That's how Jones recently became one of the people instrumental in sliding a Civilian Review Panel complete with subpoena powers through the Miami City Commission and the voting public, leaving a stunned police union in its wake.
But for classic Jones one-upmanship, consider his November 29, 2000, arrest, which was formally closed out June 12, 2002. Jones was protesting at a Liberty City construction site with fellow members of Brothers of the Same Mind when a female Miami Police officer, Vernell Reynolds, accused Leroy of assaulting her. How Jones outmaneuvered the State Attorney's Office (SAO) unfolded like a ghetto fable, a kind of Brer Rabbit vs. The Man.
Officer Reynolds arrived at the corner of NW 13th Avenue and 41st Street at 11:00 a.m. to monitor the Brothers' gathering. Upon her arrival, Reynolds writes in her arrest report, "Above Def. [Jones] stated to me 'they always send damn females.'" The group had a permit to protest a large construction project that they claimed had not hired any local residents even though it was funded in part with government money. Reynolds and other officers put up yellow police tape and asked the protesters to step behind it. After the line went up, Reynolds writes, "Approximately 10-15 minutes later def. stepped closer in an aggressive motion to this officer, while having an angry expression on his face and stated that he was going to kick my ass. Def. rushed over to me and began yelling in my face. I advised Def. to stop yelling in my face or he would be arrested. Def. indicated [']go right ahead, I've been arrested before.[']... At the time I feared Def. was going to strike this officer. Def. was arrested."
Jones's version: After officers put up the yellow tape and asked people to step behind it, Reynolds stepped up to the group and said, "You all punk-ass faggots need to get jobs." When an older man in the group argued that she couldn't call him a faggot because he has kids and grandkids, Jones piped up, saying, "Why they always send the women to disrespect us?" Then, Jones says, he told her he was going to file a complaint and "all hell broke loose." Another officer said, "Is he threatening you?" And Reynolds rushed over to Jones and yelled at him, "You threatening me?" Jones says he didn't answer. Reynolds said, "You're going to jail." To which Jones said something to the effect of "That ain't nothing, I been to jail before." And he was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault.
Critical to the charge is Reynolds's account that Jones rushed up to her in a threatening manner. Critical to Jones's defense is his contention that the officer rushed over and confronted him.
This would be what is known as a he-said-she-said standoff. One could expect the officers on site to corroborate Officer Reynolds's account, and the protesters to corroborate Jones's version. But then something happened that threatened to skew the scales. The next day a protester told Jones that his wife had videotaped the incident. Police apparently heard about the videotape and went searching for it from the protester and his wife, who had already given it to Jones. Because it was potential evidence in the case, police could not force Jones to give the tape to them.
On December 12, 2001, Jones appeared before Judge Ana Maria Pando. Jones says a lawyer he knows volunteered to represent him pro bono. "I didn't need a lawyer for a damn misdemeanor," Jones scoffs. As if to prove he knew what he was doing, Jones refused to file for discovery. *
Florida's Criminal Procedure Discovery Rule stipulates that defendants can file to see what evidence the prosecution has stockpiled against them. The catch is that invoking the rule allows prosecutors to see what evidence the defense holds. The rule, however, is not reciprocal: If the defense does not file for discovery, prosecutors cannot make the defense show them their evidence. Because Jones did not file, he did not have to turn over the videotape. Asked how he knew not to file discovery, Jones laughs, "I just been in the system so many times."
Specially assigned to go up against Jones was Assistant State Attorney Chadd Lackey, who runs the SAO's Community Justice Program. According to a transcript of a February hearing, Lackey tried to convince the judge to turn over the tape: "... the defendant has not invoked discovery, however, we believe that pursuant to section G of that rule [Jones must turn over the tape] to ensure that the State gets a fair trial," Lackey said, adding: "We are compelling a copy of that videotape so that we are not ambushed at trial with a videotape."