- Sarah Flood-Bauman
- The witness says he was so close to the shooting, an officer had to help him maneuver around bullet casings as he was leaving the scene.
James Brantley had just left a bar and wanted some chicken wings before heading home the morning of February 28, 2014, so he stopped by the Chacho's off Perrin Beitel Road. It was there, while parked in the restaurant's drive-thru lane, that Brantley claims he saw Robert Encina shoot and kill an unarmed Marquise Jones as he ran toward the street.
In fact, Brantley says he was so close to the shooting his ears were ringing when the gunfire stopped. He says Encina, an off-duty San Antonio Police Department officer working security at the northeast side restaurant, walked up to his window after the shooting to ask Brantley if he saw a gun in Jones' hand. Brantley says Encina gave him a strange look and walked away when he replied, "He didn't have no gun. You killed that man."
Not long after that, another officer came and asked Brantley to move his car away from the scene. Brantley says the officer had to help him maneuver around bullet casings. No one from SAPD would interview Brantley or ask him for a witness statement that morning. If they had, Brantley's would have been the sixth witness account taken by police that morning indicating Jones did not have a gun in his hand when Encina shot him in the back. Brantley says he came forward sometime last year after seeing a news report that officials had cleared Encina of wrongdoing in the case.
Then he got an unexplained visitor.
In court Tuesday morning, as he testified in the trial over the federal lawsuit Jones' family filed against Encina and SAPD, Brantley claimed an unmarked police cruiser followed him to his car last spring, sometime after he signed an affidavit swearing that he witnessed the shooting and that Jones didn't wield a weapon at officer Encina when he was killed. Brantley said it was nighttime and he was walking to his car, about to go pick up his young daughter, when he noticed he was being followed. Eventually, a man got out of the unmarked cruiser, asked Brantley who he was, cuffed his hands behind his back, put him in the back of the car, and then started driving downtown.
Or as Brantley put it in his deposition: "I'm against the car, handcuffs, and back seat. That quick."
In court Tuesday, Brantley testified that he assumed the car was an unmarked police cruiser because that's what it looked like inside, including a metal grate with a rifle rack that separated the back from the front seats (he called it a "police cage"). The man who detained him — wearing a blue shirt, slacks and boots — looked like a cop, but didn't show Brantley a badge and wouldn't answer any of his questions. "You have to go downtown," was all the guy would tell him, according to Brantley's court testimony.
Brantley says the mystery man drove him downtown, somewhere off Frio Street, where another car met up with them. The man who detained Brantley got out of the car and started talking to the other driver — Brantley estimates they chatted for maybe 20 minutes while he was still cuffed in the back seat. And then, the maybe-cop got back in the car and drove Brantley home, no explanation.
This isn't even the first time something strange has surfaced last-minute in the Marquise Jones case — which is in part why, as we wrote last week, Jones' death has sparked calls for independent investigations of police shootings in San Antonio.
Most recently, the surprise centered on a blue-steel revolver police say they found some 15 feet away from where Jones collapsed dead on the pavement from a bullet to the back. For years, SAPD investigators said that gun wasn't tested for fingerprints or any other physical evidence — and when pressed in court depositions, the department's own experts even admitted they hadn't attempted to gather any evidence because a "patina" on the weapon made it unlikely to render prints. Those same investigators also testified that they could never tie the gun to Jones.
As of last week, however, the city claims SAPD did in fact test that gun for prints, but still came up with nothing. San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley also announced last week that she'd tapped a local law firm to conduct a "thorough review" of SAPD's investigation and handling of evidence in the case, a decision she for some reason made only a week ahead of trial.
Consider also that early on in the case, Daryl Washington, lawyer for the Jones family, sought any surveillance video from the restaurant the morning of the shooting. Chacho's claimed it had no video, and SAPD insisted it hadn't gathered any in its investigation. Which is why it was so surprising when last year closed-circuit security camera footage surfaced showing the inside of the restaurant the morning of the shooting.
Conveniently, the city and DA's office now say that video discredits the testimony of yet another person who came forward to say he witnessed the shooting, that Jones didn't have a gun, and that police never so much as asked for him to give a statement that morning. Last year, after signing two affidavits and testifying in a court deposition, that witness, who was a Chacho's employee, recanted his story when confronted by the DA's office with video evidence that apparently nobody else even knew existed. Washington, the Jones family's attorney, insists that witness was pressured into changing his statement.
Brantley's account, on the other hand, has remained consistent. Sometime after his mystery trip downtown in handcuffs, Brantley got a visit by a DA investigator who said he was following up with new witnesses in the case. Brantley testified that he didn't even consider the encounter a real interview because it was so informal, and he certainly didn't know the investigator was recording him. He tells the investigator, "He (Jones) pulled his pants up and he (Encina) shot the shit out of him. He shot him up." In the audio of that chat, Brantley sounds nervous, talking so fast that at points he's difficult to understand. He tells the investigator that he won't be able to attend court hearings during the week because of an oilfield services job in Houston that keeps him away for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. He feared getting involved in the case could cost him his job.
The DA's office claims Brantley was subpoenaed to testify in what would have been a second grand jury investigation into the death of Marquise Jones. Brantley says he didn't show up because he was waiting to hear back from the DA's office (which has refused to talk to us about the case). Lawyers with the city and Encina also claim he dodged their attempts to subpoena him. Last week they even filed a motion to keep Brantley from testifying at trial, saying it would be an "unfair surprise." Instead, a judge issued a warrant to compel his testimony. In a deposition he was forced to give last Thursday following his arrest, Brantley said he's already lost his job over the matter.
Brantley's account, and whether you believe it, is like a Rorschach test. To believe him is to believe that SAPD didn't even bother to take a statement from someone so close to the shooting that officers had to help him maneuver around bullet casings as he was leaving the scene. Believing Brantley also now apparently means believing that witnesses who decide to come forward on police shooting cases like this might randomly get handcuffed, put in an unmarked cruiser and driven around town without explanation.
Brantley's an important witness for the Jones family because believing him probably means you're more likely to believe the incendiary subtext of the case they've filed against Encina and the city — that SAPD intentionally botched this investigation. In his opening statements at trial this week, Washington referenced photos of the scene that morning. In some, he claimed, the gun police say they found near Jones is mysteriously absent. John Fitzpatrick, a lawyer for the city, roundly dismissed such allegations, telling the jury, "The evidence is going to say there was no coverup."
Still, if you believe Brantley, then someone visited him shortly after he came forward as a witness. A judge has issued a gag order in the case, meaning the attorneys couldn't discuss Brantley's claims on Tuesday. Attorneys in the case say they expect the trial to last for at least another week.
In the meantime, it's just one more unanswered question surrounding the death of Marquise Jones.