Tony Jones was inside the office at his auto repair shop in Northwest Baltimore, talking with some friends the evening of Jan. 24, when the conversation turned to Jones’ gun.
The 58-year-old was the new owner of a Taurus 605 snubnosed revolver, loaded with five .38-caliber bullets, that he carried the in an ankle holster.
The group had been hanging out that day, according to court records, talking and drinking at Fix It All Auto Repairs on Fairlawn Avenue. Delroy Plummer, a hardworking and pleasant 68-year-old truck driver, was across from Jones, sitting on a couch.
Jones wanted to show his gun to his friends, but when he pulled it out, it fired, fatally striking Plummer in the chest.
Witnesses and Jones said the shooting was an accident. But Baltimore Police arrested him on a charge first-degree murder, which would require prosecutors prove Jones meant to shoot and kill Plummer.
Assistant State’s Attorney Robin Wherley said in court Tuesday it’s likely the charges against Jones will be reduced, but the decision would be up to the homicide division of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office.
Jones’ attorney, Gil Amaral, pointed out the witness statements and let the court know Jones has four children and no convictions on his record. About 15 people, mostly Jones’ relatives, packed into three rows in the Wabash Avenue courtroom to show support for Jones and to signal to the judge they would keep Jones in line should he be released ahead of trial.
“He is a good person,” Amaral said.
District Court Judge Carol Johnson saw it differently. She could not let him out while charged with first-degree murder, and ordered Jones held without bail. But Johnson or another judge could revisit the decision, should his charges get reduced in the future, she said.
“This looks like something that, in my experience, may not remain,” said Johnson, who was a public defender before joining the bench.
The circumstances around Plummer’s death and Jones’ and witnesses’ cooperation with police in the aftermath of the shooting raise a question: When is a killing murder and when it is a criminal accident?
In Maryland, there is a spectrum of criminal charges around death, from involuntary manslaughter to premeditated murder. The punishments vary widely. First-degree murder gets someone life in prison, whereas manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.
In between is the charge of second-degree murder (one Jones also faces) that doesn’t require prosecutors prove a killing was premeditated, legal experts say, but that someone acted with such recklessness that their criminal intent can be inferred. Involuntary manslaughter is similar, except prosecutors don’t have to prove the defendant was conscious of the risk, only that their actions were “grossly negligent,” according to the jury instructions for the charge.
In charging documents, Baltimore Police Detective Damon Talley wrote the investigation revealed Jones acted with “gross negligence,” which led to Plummer’s death.
Think of the distinction between involuntary manslaughter and second-degree murder this way: If someone throws a flowerpot out of a high-rise window and the pot lands on someone below, killing them, that would be second-degree murder, even though the person who threw the pot didn’t intend to hurt anyone, said Andrew I. Alperstein, a Baltimore defense attorney. Put another way, a person should have known that throwing something large, hard and dense out of a window several stories up could kill or maim someone.
“The act is so reckless that the law criminalizes that conduct,” Alperstein said to explain the difference between bad accidents and crimes. “Most crimes require an intention by the wrongdoer, but some crimes are so incredibly reckless that the law criminalizes the conduct because it’s just so reckless or was without regard for the injured or killed person.”
Second-degree murder is a catchall of sorts, intentionally hard to define because each case is fact specific. ”People can tell you what first-degree murder is, people can tell you what manslaughter is. … but nobody knows what second-degree murder is,” David Irwin, a veteran defense attorney and former prosecutor, said.
In Jones’ case, there are several facts a jury would have to consider. Court records show Jones was in lawful possession of his gun, with a Maryland concealed carry permit. He had completed state police training and an additional course from the National Rifle Association on pistol shooting. “Mr. Jones received more than ample training on the safe and proper handling of a loaded firearm,” Talley wrote in the charging documents.
Plummer’s older sister, Enid James, agreed with the Police Department’s determination that Jones knew his way around a gun. She said she did not think the shooting was accidental, calling Jones a killer.
“Guns don’t go off like that,” James said. “Accident my foot!”
It’s not clear how much Jones had to drink that day. Maryland law prohibits a person from carrying a gun when they’re under the influence of alcohol.
Jones’ conduct after the shooting could also show his intent, experts said. Court records show he called 911 and told operators he accidentally shot his friend. When police arrived, Jones told them where the gun was: on the counter in the office next to Plummer’s body.
The preliminary autopsy report also seems to support Jones’ and other witnesses’ statements, according to court records. It shows Plummer’s wound was caused by a bullet traveling downward when it struck him, evidence that “corroborates” the statements police collected, according to court records.
While prosecutors could later determine the shooting does not meet the standard for first-degree murder, there is strategy behind the initial decision to charge Jones with it, even if it temporarily costs him his freedom.
Warren Brown, a longtime defense attorney, represented the 15-year-old squeegee worker who shot and killed Timothy Reynolds at the Inner Harbor in July 2022 after Reynolds swung a bat at the teen and his friends. That case was charged as a murder, but a jury found the teen guilty of manslaughter.
“In Baltimore City, they just always charge first-degree if there’s a death because it gives them leverage,” Brown said.