DURHAM — Brandon Shamar Townsend was arrested almost two years ago and accused of murder in a drive-by shooting that left a 13-year-old Durham girl dead and her family and neighborhood on edge.
On Monday, after Townsend spent 682 days in jail while awaiting trial for the 2011 killing of Shakanah China, prosecutors dismissed the charge against him and granted him freedom with a caveat.
“We dismissed it because we hadn’t gotten the DNA back from the SBI,” Leon Stanback, the acting Durham County District Attorney, said late in the day. “If the DNA comes back, we can recharge him.”
Townsend, 21, has maintained since his arrest that he was somewhere else when the child was caught in what police and prosecutors believed to be the crossfire of gang warfare.
Shakanah was outside an Atka Court apartment in East Durham on May 10, 2011, playing with her younger sister and brother when a green van sped past on an adjacent street.
Shakanah was texting on her new cellphone when the pop of gunfire caught those gathered outside the apartment by surprise.
The girl fell to the ground after she was shot, then got back up and ran to her mother on the porch. Demetriss China told her wounded daughter: “Your momma loves you. Your family loves you.” Help was on the way.
The teenager was pronounced dead a short time later at Duke University Medical Center, opening a deep wound that is still tender for her family. About a year passed before Townsend was arrested for the crime.
Scott Holmes, the defense attorney representing Townsend, has argued for two years that his client was not at the scene, that he has an alibi witness who police interviewed before bringing charges.
In June 2012, Holmes filed a motion seeking dismissal of the case, arguing that the only evidence connecting Townsend to the case was a confidential source who reported seeing his client “get into a van before the shooting and return shortly after the shooting in a van.”
“Despite multiple witnesses on the street at the time of the shooting, none have identified Mr. Townsend as a person involved,” Holmes argued in his dismissal request.
In addition to asking a Durham judge several times to reduce the bond for Townsend, Holmes has pushed for a speedy trial, arguing that prosecutors filed charges without sufficient evidence to back their accusations.
After Townsend filed a request for a speedy trial in June 2012, prosecutors obtained a search warrant and collected DNA from the defendant for testing at the State Bureau of Investigation. Investigators swabbed the green van for DNA and sent those findings and other evidence from the crime to the SBI lab for testing.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys have complained about testing delays at the SBI, and state officials have argued that limited resources have limited their ability to turn around police requests as quickly as they once were.
But it was unclear why the SBI tests in the Townsend case were taking so long. Holmes said he thinks part of the reason is due to what he expects the tests to show.
“This is another outrageous example of the Durham city police arresting an innocent person with little or no evidence,” Holmes said after the murder charge was dropped on Monday. “It is tragic for Mr. Townsend and his family to have lost almost two years of his life in jail, and it is tragic for the family of Shakanah China who are still waiting for justice.”
Other cases similar
Holmes said the Townsend case mimics a pattern that he worries has become too familiar in the Durham Police Department.
This past summer, prosecutors dropped charges against an N.C. Central University student who was arrested and accused of allegations related to a home invasion after calling emergency dispatchers to report a body in the road.
That student, Lewis Little, a 20-year-old mass communications major, has been critical of the police department for leaving a dark suspicion lingering over him. Prosecutors dropped the charges against him after he spent nearly a month in jail, saying there was not enough evidence to push forward toward trial.
But in a world where mugshots and police reports are only a Google search away, Lewis has spoken out recently about how the stigma of arrest has made his life much more difficult.
Also, the Innocence Project filed documents two weeks ago in Durham County Superior Court, contending that Durham police charged ahead with a case against Darryl Anthony Howard, a man who has spent the past 19 years in prison, despite DNA evidence that implicates another culprit.
Howard was convicted in 1995 of two counts of second-degree murder and one count of arson in the deaths of Doris Washington, a 29-year-old mother and crack dealer in the Few Gardens public housing complex, and her 13-year-old daughter, Nishonda.
The Innocence Project attorneys and Jim Cooney, a Charlotte lawyer working with them, contend that police homed in on Howard as a suspect a year after the crime and ignored strong evidence that pointed toward a different culprit.
In that case, Howard had a criminal record.
In the case dismissed on Monday, Townsend had a criminal record, but Holmes pointed out in court documents that his previous criminal troubles had been misdemeanors.
Holmes said Monday that he worries that if the DNA tests come back and do not implicate his client that prosecutors will not broadcast the results.
“They’re so fast to charge and then when there’s no evidence it’s never resolved, they never fix that,” Holmes said. “It’s just awful. It’s like the other cases. We know the DNA’s going to come back negative because he’s innocent, but he’s got no opportunity now to prove his innocence.”