Officer Roger Jones, a black five-year veteran of the Cleveland police force and off-duty at the time, shot 20-year-old Kenny Smith in the early hours of March 10, 2012. He faces a civil rights lawsuit in federal court that alleges his role in using excessive force and causing Smith’s wrongful death. Devonta Hill, 23, is charged in Cuyahoga County court with Smith’s murder.
Smith and Hill were at a party at Wilbert’s the night of the incident. It had taken some convincing to get Smith to show up; he was a quiet kid, but his friends promised that they play some of his music at the party. Smith was a rising young rapper on the city’s east side. A number of fights broke out among the crowd, and an unknown person — or multiple people — fired a gun outside the bar.
“Kenny didn't fight, Kenny didn't lay a hand on nobody. Kenny wasn't like that,” Smith’s friend, Martez Little, told Scene in late 2012
Smith got into the front passenger seat of a gold Saturn driven by Devonta Hill. Another man rode in the back seat. Hill pulled out onto East 9th Street going north, though he was stopped at Prospect because of traffic and an unrelated incident.
Jones was either in the parking lot behind Wilbert’s or drinking at Tops and Bottoms Gentlemen’s Club — his sworn deposition clashes with what he told a 9-1-1 dispatcher that night — as the scuffle erupted out of the building and into a nearby alley. When he heard gunshots, he took off onto the street and chased down Hill’s car.
“Rather than proceeding to the driver’s side where he supposedly saw the alleged shooter from the parking lot enter, Jones ran to the passenger side and kicked in Smith’s window and ordered him from the car at gunpoint,” according to the civil complaint, a sequence of events later corroborated by Jones during a sworn deposition.
Smith was unarmed, but Jones saw a gun laying on the seat next to him. Jones pointed a semi-automatic handgun toward the left side of Smith’s head and fired one bullet. The 20-year-old man took a few steps away from the car, collapsed and “lay gurgling for breath for many minutes before an ambulance was called,” according to the complaint.
As Jones was ordering Smith from the car, other police officers had arrived on the scene to arrest Hill — the suspected gunman from the parking lot — and later charge him for his role in the quickly escalating incident.
Now, more than three years later, the judicial strains of this night are coming to a head.
In 2014, ruling the shooting “justified,” Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty hailed Jones for "correctly and heroically [taking] action to protect the safety of the citizens of Cleveland."
Jones’ trial will begin Aug. 31.
Hill’s trial in Judge Joseph Russo’s courtroom was originally set for Aug. 12, 2013; he wasn’t indicted until Jan. 14, 2013 — 10 months after the shooting. As of press time, the trial is now set for Sept. 8. He is charged with murder, involuntary manslaughter, aggravated riot, tampering with evidence, discharge of a firearm near prohibited premises, two counts of failure to comply and four counts of felonious assault.
“It’s totally insane, this case — the way the system has treated it,” Terry Gilbert, an attorney for Smith’s family in the federal court case, tells Scene
. “[That includes] McGinty by not prosecuting the cop and putting the blame on this driver, who was already out of the car and on the ground when the off-duty cop shot [Smith] at point-blank range in the head.”
Two trials — a civil case in federal court and a criminal case in Cuyahoga County — are about to begin, each one examining opposite perspectives on a 2012 police shooting in downtown Cleveland.