By John W. Goodwin Jr.
Family members of a 25-year-old Youngstown State University senior murdered at an off-campus party are wondering why they were not informed beforehand about a plea deal with one of the men charged with the fatal shooting.
Mark Jones, 21, of Youngstown had been indicted for felony murder, 10 counts of felonious assault and a list of firearm specifications in the murder of Jamail Johnson and wounding of 10 other people in February 2011.
Those charges, under a plea deal with Mahoning County prosecutors, have been changed.
Jones, accompanied by his attorneys, Thomas Zena and Ryan Ingram, appeared Tuesday morning before Judge John M. Durkin of common pleas court to plead guilty to reduced charges. The murder charge was amended to involuntary manslaughter, and the gun specifications, which carry separate additional prison time, were dropped.
Mark Jones, suspected of handing a gun to his brother Columbus Jones just before Columbus Jones shot into the house killing Johnson and wounding others, could still face 90 years in prison on the charges, but prosecutors will recommend 10 years for the involuntary manslaughter and five years on the assault charges, all to run concurrently.
The plea is contingent upon Jones’ truthful testimony against his co-defendants.
Columbus Jones was convicted at trial and sentenced to 92 years in prison earlier this year.
Mark Jones’ plea deal came as a surprise because he was slated for trial the week after Thanksgiving in Summit County. Judge Durkin approved a change-of-venue request for Mark Jones and co- defendant Jamelle Jackson, who police believe to be the other shooter.
No one was more surprised by the plea agreement than Shirlene Hill, Jamail Johnson’s mother, who said she has attended virtually every hearing involving the case and is upset she was called and told she would only have 10 minutes to make it to the courthouse for the hearing.
She is also unhappy with the fact the terms of the plea were not disclosed to her family beforehand.
“It is very inconsiderate for things to be going on and I am not aware of it,” she said. “Then I get a call and told I have 10 minutes to be here for this. ... Jamail Johnson had family who cared about him dearly. Why are we being treated this way?”
Sidney Hill, Jamail Johnson’s stepfather, said he is concerned the plea deal with Mark Jones sends the wrong message to those thinking about committing violent acts in the city.
“When you see a case like this and then look at all the killing in Youngstown, they will continue these killings when you see them pleading out and allowing these types of deals,” he said.
Judge Durkin made it clear during the plea hearing that Mark Jones was not a suspected shooter in the case.
He said the only allegation is that Mark Jones handed the gun to his brother before his brother started shooting.
Zena emphasized his client’s role in the shooting and explained why he decided to take the plea deal.
“This is an emotionally difficult case for everyone involved. ... I want to make it clear that it has never been the indication by the prosecutor’s office or in the evidence that my client ever fired a weapon,” Zena said.
“He saw the sentence imposed on Columbus Jones, and the court rightfully joined [Mark Jones’] trial with Jamelle Jackson, so we would be sitting there with someone the state is trying to prove as the shooter. ... The plea was the best option.”
Jamelle Jackson is still slated for trial later this month in Summit County.
Demetrius Wright, charged with carrying a concealed weapon, tampering with evidence and obstructing justice, has also entered into a plea agreement and will be sentenced in December.
Brandon Carter, charged with obstructing justice, is awaiting a trial date.