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A judge dismissed charges Monday against a man accused of murdering a 17-year-old boy in 2009 after she found Youngstown police tampered with evidence in the case.
Mahoning County Judge Maureen Sweeney ruled Monday to dismiss charges of murder, having weapons despite being a felon and carrying a concealed weapon against Paul Brown, 35.
He will be released from the Mahoning County Jail sometime on Monday, but will remain in federal custody. He is in the midst of serving a five-year, 11-month federal prison sentence for having a weapon as a felon the day of the murder.
Court records show Brown has been convicted of five separate illegal weapons possession charges since 1998 that includes two other federal prison stints of four and two years.
Brown was accused of fatally shooting 17-year-old Ashten Jackson during a botched 2009 robbery. His body was found behind a building on Jacobs Road.
In May, Sweeney ordered AT&T phone company to provide all incoming and outgoing calls from two memory cards on Brown’s cell phone. One card was in Brown’s phone when he purchased it. The other, defense attorneys claim, was a blank card inserted into Brown’s phone.
Sweeney wrote in her decision on Monday that someone in the police department ripped open a sealed evidence bag containing Brown’s cell phone. The original memory card was replaced with a different card, rendering the phone inoperable.
Sweeney previously ordered the bag to be brought to court where she saw the seal broken and the evidence bag taped shut with clear tape.
An electronics expert, Ricahrd Ricoci, testified the card, called a SIM card, was switched. Brown, she noted, was in custody since being arrested on May 25, 2009 and the only people with access to the bag was Youngstown police.
Ricoci testified the memory card is buried behind the phone’s battery and was intentionally taken out of the phone for it to be switched.
Sweeney admonished Youngstown police and the Mahoning County Prosecutor’s office in her decision.
“The court finds the mishandling of the cell phone while in the Youngstown police’s custody extremely disturbing,” Sweeney wrote. “The court cannot speculate as to how the SIM card got switched, however the court finds the card was switched while in police custody. The court finds this ‘action’ an act of conscious wrongdoing which cannot be overlooked.”
Youngstown Police Chief Rod Foley refused comment, as did Mahoning County prosecutors handling the case. However, in a court motion filed Monday, an assistant Mahoning County Prosecutor said “The State submits that the Defendant is on a desperate fishing expedition, hoping his to turn this Court’s focus away from the issues at hand and toward a certain Youngstown Police Officer.”
Brown was indicted Nov. 15, 2009 and faced a life-in-prison maximum penalty.
Jackson was reported missing by his mother about one week before his body was discovered. His mother received a call after her son’s disappearance from someone who said Jackson’s body would be found on the East Side.
A mistrial was declared by Sweeney in January after it was discovered that Youngstown Police Lt. John Kelty purposefully withheld three pieces of evidence, including statements Brown made to investigators during interrogations, from prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case.
Other evidence included taped interviews of witnesses and a police report for the arrest of another man defense attorneys claim could be responsible for the murder, since Brown, Jackson and the other man all drove together to commit a robbery, records say.
The man then sent Brown a message that read “it went bad, I think he got hit.” Brown told investigators about the message on his phone.
The man, in a police report withheld from prosecutors and defense attorneys, said he picked up Jackson and Brown on May 24, the last time anyone saw Jackson alive, to go commit a robbery when he said “Things went bad.”
The withheld report says he knew exactly where Jackson’s body was, but that he needed to speak to detectives before he said anything else.
Brown’s attorney, Anthony Meranto, argued in the motion Sweeney granted that Kelty and other police investigators routinely denied or hid information from him during the case.
Meranto also asked for an investigation from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office into their conduct.
“If this egregious conduct is not addressed by way of a dismissal, then the Youngstown Police Department and this detective can continue to cross the line and stomp on the rights of defendants,” Meranto wrote. “This type of conduct serves to diminish the effectiveness of all of us in the legal community, who try our best, win or lose, but play by the rules.”
Kelty, according to Summit County Common Pleas Courts records included in Meranto’s motion to dismiss the case, tampered with shell casings in a kidnapping-murder case in 2002 that resulted in charges being dismissed.
Records say Javan Rogers was kidnapped in August 2002 from his Akron home and found dead from gunshot wounds to the head weeks later in Youngstown.
A witness told police the man charged with murder shot at her at about the same time the body was found. Kelty, according to Summit County prosecutors, switched the shell casings found near Rogers’ body and the one fired at the witness.
Kelty told investigators with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation the evidence is “fine,” records say.
No one ever told Akron detectives and prosecutors were forced to dismiss the charges.