A witness in a Florida murder trial chose to be held in contempt rather than testify against three defendants charged with a deadly shooting outside a club. In response to being sworn in to tell the truth, witness Christopher Jones declined, saying he would not promise to tell the truth. Jones further refused to answer questions. Court security escorted him out of the courtroom, ending the first in a two-part saga which ultimately left the state without a critical witness.
The judge said that the “evidence code clearly requires his presence and testimony at this proceeding.” Jones, who was already in custody on another matter, created a hurdle for prosecutors. Jones was serving time for child abuse, the judge said.
The state asked the judge to declare the witness unavailable under the evidence code and to admit the witness’s previous out-of-court statements under an exception to the rule against hearsay. The judge questioned whether he could do that, since the witness’s previous statements were not subject to cross-examination. The judge wouldn’t allow prosecutors to substitute the witness’s previous statements under that rules of evidence, which have roots in the constitution’s confrontation clause.
After the evidence hearing, the judge ordered the defendant to appear again. He ordered the defendant to testify. The witness said he didn’t even understand his obligation. The witness even refused to give a name. “I’m telling you you have to answer the questions of the attorneys,” the judge said.
The witness continued to refuse, so the judge found him in contempt and sentenced him to 180 days in jail, the maximum possible sentence for contempt of court.
In police interviews prior to trial, Jones said he was a patron at the Cloud 9 nightclub the night shots rang out. Jones said he was outside the club when he saw defendant Laquan Barrow and others getting kicked out of the club. He said he heard Barrow say, “y’all better move” several times and saw victim Danielle Kendrick and patron Myeasha Barrow continue to fight. Barrow was trying to get to Kendrick, Jones said, but club security personnel blocked him. Jones said he heard Laquan Barrow say, “I’ve been sparing y’all because of Merv,” “I’ve got bond money,” and “I’m gonna catch me a body tonight.” Jones then said he saw Nathaniel Kendrick come out of the club and assume a fighting stance. Defendant Laquan Barrow pulled a black semi-automatic pistol from his front right pocket while backing up, Jones said. Jones then told police he saw defendant Barrow aim towards the crowd. Next, Jones ducked, ran around the corner, and heard gunfire, he told police. Jones pointed to the defendant in a photo array as the person he saw draw, point, and aim the gun, police reported.
The jury will never hear any of those details, however, because Jones refused to tell the truth in front of the jury.
It was the second setback for prosecutors Wednesday afternoon. Earlier, surviving victim Dontarious Bartley refused to identify any of the defendants from the witness stand. He previously had identified defendant Laquan Barrow to police as one of the shooters. Because Bartley did actually take the stand, prosecutors were able to call police officers who interviewed him in the hospital to discredit his attempt to refuse to point the finger at Barrow at trial. Bartley never identified the other two defendants in the case.
Laquan Barrow, Michael Smith, and Gary King face second-degree murder charges related to to death of club patron Benetria Robinson. Five others were injured at the scene. Nathaniel Kendrick was shot in the chest. Danielle Kendrick and Dontarious Bartley were shot in the back. Thomia Wadley and Danvinist Blunt were shot in the leg.
[Editor’s Note: This article has been updated for clarity.]