A popular part-time student at Howard University, 25-year-old Prince Jones Jr. was not accustomed to trouble with the law. But that all changed in the early morning hours last Sept. 1, during a confrontation with an undercover narcotics officer on a quiet residential street in suburban Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. In an encounter that remains murky, Prince Jones, unarmed, was shot dead in the back, apparently after he had rammed an unmarked Prince George's County, Md., police car driven by Cpl. Carlton Jones, 33, who was no relation.
The fact that Officer Jones, like Prince Jones, is black did nothing to allay the fury of many African-American residents in the Washington area, who saw the incident as a classic case of racial profiling. "There have been other killings, of course, but this is the one that broke the back of many people," says the Rev. C. Anthony Muse, pastor of the 4,000-member Ark of Safety Christian Church, one of the largest black congregations in Prince George's County. "This has created fear in the community. People think twice about calling the police." Adding to the anger was the decision Oct. 23 by Virginia Commonwealth's Attorney Robert Horan Jr. not to press charges against Officer Jones, arguing that the shooting was justified. Since then there have been several rallies at Howard University to draw attention to Jones's death, and in December the victim's mother, Dr. Mable Jones, a Philadelphia radiologist, filed a $145 million wrongful death suit against the Prince George's County police department, Jones and other officers. "This should not have happened," she declared at a press conference. "Nobody should be gunned down in the middle of the night like an animal."
In life Prince had seemed destined for a better fate. He was born in New Orleans and raised in rural Louisiana, where his father, Prince Sr., was a safety director for an oil-field service company and his mother was in medical training. But in 1982 his parents' marriage broke up, leaving young Prince devastated. "Despite the differences between me and his father, he always sought to reconcile us," says Dr. Jones. "He was a peacemaker. He couldn't understand why we were not able to love each other." After the divorce Mable took her son and his younger sister Jennifer to live in Duncanville, Texas, just southwest of Dallas.
Whatever lingering pain Prince was feeling, he hid it behind a friendly, upbeat personality. He fit in comfortably in affluent, mostly white Duncanville and had a wide circle of friends. After two years at the local high school, he was accepted at the highly competitive Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, a state-supported boarding school on the campus of the University of North Texas in Denton. Even among gifted peers, Prince stood out as a leader. "If I were to pick a student who was most likely to be President of the United States," says assistant dean Manus Donahue, "I would choose Jones. He had that kind of charisma."
After graduation, Prince headed off for predominantly black Howard University in Washington, D.C. But he soon began to seem unsure about what he should do with his life, dropping out of school several times and taking part-time jobs. Even so, he remained close to his family, especially Jennifer, 20, a sophomore on the women's basketball team at the University of Pennsylvania. ("I talked to him every night. He was my sounding board," says Jennifer.) Prince's girlfriend Candace Jackson gave birth to their daughter Nina, now 1. Though Jones and Jackson had had a stormy relationship in the past, they were on good terms, and Prince regularly visited Nina.
By last summer Prince was again enrolled at Howard, due to graduate in December, and was working at a Bally's health club in Hyattsville, Md. At 11 p.m. on the night of Aug. 31, he finished his shift at the club and stopped by to see Nina, who was staying at a babysitter's home nearby. Around 2 a.m. he set off for Jackson's home in Fairfax County, Va. Sometime along the way, Jones's 1998 black Jeep Cherokee, a birthday gift from his mother, was spotted by Cpl. Carlton Jones, who was working undercover narcotics and driving a Mitsubishi Montero. Officer Jones later said that he had seen the Cherokee in an area known for drug dealing. He said he also suspected that the Jeep had been involved in several incidents involving a reputed drug dealer, who had allegedly rammed a police car and stolen an officer's handgun. And so Officer Jones had tailed the Jeep for 15 miles through Washington and its suburbs.
A six-year veteran of the Prince George's County police force, Carlton Jones had at least one thing in common with the man he was following. He too had attended Howard, for two years, before doing a hitch in the Army and then working with the Capitol Hill Police. In recent years, according to neighbors at their apartment complex in Fort Washington, Md., he and his wife, Alicia Hinds-Jones, had had a difficult marriage. "Carlton was an all-right dude," says Mamie Davis, who lived above the Joneses, but she adds that he appeared to be under stress. Just three days before the shooting, Alicia had filed for divorce, seeking custody of their two sons.
Exactly what happened on the night Prince Jones died remains in dispute. According to Officer Jones, he followed the Jeep to a residential street in Fairfax County, where Prince Jones pulled into a driveway. Then, according to the officer's attorney, Prince suddenly pulled out of the driveway, blocked the driver's door of the police car and confronted him. Officer Jones says he brandished his gun—but not his badge—twice identified himself as a policeman and ordered Prince Jones to return to his car. Without a word, said Jones, the suspect got back into the Jeep, rammed the Montero once, paused, then rammed it again. As the Jeep was preparing to hit him a third time, according to the officer, he emptied all 16 shots from his 9 mm Beretta into the back window of the Jeep. Five of the bullets struck Prince Jones in the back, killing him almost instantly. "He was in fear for his life and clearly shot in self-defense," says Carlton Jones's lawyer, Michael Leibig, of his client.
But Prince Jones's supporters have doubts. For starters, they point out that because Jones had shown a gun, not his badge, it was conceivable that Prince was the one who feared for his life, and that that may be why he rammed the unmarked police car. But they also ask why Prince was targeted for suspicion in the first place, since it turned out that the vehicle used by the alleged drug dealer had Maryland plates, while Prince's car had Pennsylvania tags. (It also emerged that in 1999 Officer Jones had been reprimanded by his department for falsifying a police report.) Critics of law enforcement in Prince George's County, where over the past two years four black men were killed by police, find it hard to escape the conclusion that Officer Jones had assumed the worst of the man he was following at least partly because that man was black. "That just sticks in my gut," says Ted Williams, a lawyer for Prince Jones's family. "Prince Jones was a totally innocent man who was doing nothing that night but minding his own business."
The FBI has investigated the shooting and turned over its findings to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which will determine if any charges are warranted. In the meantime Carlton Jones has been assigned to a desk job. But Mable Jones, who is creating a foundation at Howard University in her son's memory, has vowed that she will not rest until justice, as she sees it, is served. Says Dr. Jones: "I don't want my son to be just another dead black male."
Rochelle Jones and J. Todd Foster in Prince George's County
- Rochelle Jones,
- J. Todd Foster.