- Facebook.com, via Justice for Marquise Jones
The gun was too rusty. They didn’t have the right forensic tools. It went against protocol. Another black man had been shot and killed a few states over. It just “fell through the cracks.”
These were some of the explanations San Antonio Police Department officers gave when asked why the department waited nearly two years before looking for fingerprints on a gun — a key piece of evidence in a fatal shooting by an off-duty SAPD cop. These answers were the result of an independent review of how the city, and specifically, its cops, handled the investigation that followed the February 2014 shooting death of 23-year-old Marquise Jones by SAPD officer Robert Encina.
The review was originally requested by the city as a gesture of “full transparency” at the end of Encina’s contentious trial, and conducted by San Antonio law firm unaffiliated with the city. However, when the review was finalized in June, the city decided to withhold the entire report from the public and press. The majority of the report was only made public Monday after an lawyer for the San Antonio Express-News challenged the decision.
Filled with contradicting testimony and unconfirmed claims, the report — which clears SAPD of any wrongdoing — shines a light on the inner workings of the city’s law enforcement agency and finds a department fraught with communication issues, unorganized investigations, and a lot of “I don’t knows.” These hiccups are often expected in a large-scale bureaucratic agency. But this time, they contributed to the bungling of a high-profile case that left a young father dead, a cop cleared of criminal charges, and a community unsure who to trust.
Officer Encina was working an off-duty security job at a northeast side Chacho's restaurant the morning he shot Marquise Jones. Encina had stopped a car in the drive-thru lane, suspecting the driver was intoxicated, and Jones was sitting in the passenger seat. No one’s certain why this stop prompted Jones to jump out of the car and start running away from the scene — maybe it’s because he was violating probation, or that he had cocaine in his system at the time. But Encina didn’t know any of this when he decided to fire eight bullets at Jones as he ran. One of the bullets hit the 23-year-old man in the back, lacerating the right atrium of his heart and killing him instantly. Encia told fellow SAPD cops at the scene that morning that Jones was holding a silver or chrome revolver in his hand when he hopped out of the car. Encina said he truly feared for his life.
The gun was later found some 25 feet away from where Jones collapsed on the pavement. Police say he must have thrown the gun while he was dying. The gun wasn’t fingerprinted until January 2016, and by that point crime lab technicians said it had “been handled by too many hands” to provide any evidence.
Five witnesses on the scene said they saw no gun, including a man parked right next to the car Jones jumped out of, who testified at trial that Encina ran up to him right after the shooting, repeatedly asking, "You seen a gun right?" He hadn’t. In court, Jones’ lawyers implied that the gun had been planted, pointing to a photo of the drive-thru scene that day where the weapon was missing. Regardless, a grand jury voted not to indict Encina in December 2015, and a federal jury sided with Encina in an April wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Jones’ family.
But cloudy testimony by officers and the city about when the gun was actually fingerprinted — and why — left lawyers and the public demanding more answers. Some sensed a cover-up within the department. The city was confident its independent report would put these suspicions to bed (that is, before they decided to keep it from the public).
In his review, lawyer Kevin Watson interviewed nine members of law enforcement involved in the Jones case, and each had a slightly different story when asked why the gun wasn’t fingerprinted right away. He concluded, however, that SAPD’s investigation “creates no suspicion of any misconduct, tampering of evidence or wrongdoing.”
Detective Brian Peters, who gathered evidence and photographs at the crime scene, said the gun was too rusty and too old to “yield any results from testing.” He told Watson that he packaged the weapon for later testing at the crime lab, but doesn’t know why it took years for that testing to take place. According to the report, Sargent James Estrada, who was also present at the crime scene later that morning, said that it was “the intention” to process the gun for DNA and fingerprints, but officers didn’t have the right equipment to do so. Asked by Watson why it took two years for the gun to be fingerprinted, Estrada said it simply “fell through the cracks.”
“The Sergeant stated that it is ‘human nature’ for things to fall through the cracks sometimes,” the report reads.
Josep De Alcaraz-Fossoul, a fingerprint expert and lecturer on the scientific analysis of crime scenes at Arizona State University, said that taking the evidence to a lab before testing for DNA or fingerprints is normal police protocol. But while he’s unfamiliar with rust’s effect on fingerprints, he said that fingerprints are incredibly resilient and it's rare to find a substance that they aren’t left behind on.
“They can resist high temperatures, they can resist rain,” he said. “And they stay there on an object for a while.”
De Alcaraz-Fossoul said that based on his prior experience as a crime scene investigator, it’s rare to not find a fingerprint on a gun. Even if it’s just a partial print, which is what’s commonly picked up on a handgun.
Regardless, Detective R. Hines, the lead homicide detective on the Jones case, told Watson that the gun’s handle was too textured to pick up any prints.
He also claimed that the investigation itself was stalled by the Bexar County District Attorney because of Michael Brown’s death by police in Ferguson, Missouri (which happened six months after Jones’ death), because it was a “racially motivated crime.” It’s unclear why this would have impacted Jones investigation — or which DA Hines was referring to, since the position changed hands during the first year of the case, from Susan Reed to current DA Nico LaHood.
“I have no idea what he’s talking about,” said LaHood in a Tuesday interview with the Current. “I get it, maybe himself or other people at SAPD were under fire...So maybe that’s an instinct he had to differ attention. I have no idea.”
LaHood said he doesn’t have any reason to believe the cops intentionally hid information about the gun or were part of a coordinated cover-up.
“Could things have been done better? Obviously. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean things were done maliciously wrong, to cover stuff up.”
The Jones family lawyer, Daryl Washington, disagreed, calling the report “laughable” in an interview with the Current.
“Makes me more sure than ever that there was a cover-up. It shows you the expense the city and attorneys will go through to cover up wrongdoing,” Washington said. “What I gathered from it was a bunch of 'I don't knows,' a lot of excuses, and yet the investigators cleared them of any wrongdoing. What kind of transparency is that?”
Watson’s report clashes with the one presented by Jerry Staton, a former Austin police detective who Washington hired to review SAPD’s investigation during the federal trial. At the time, Staton told the jury that, more likely than not, multiple SAPD officers “tried to conceal evidence in this investigation that would have contradicted Encina’s version of events.”
The evidence described in Watson’s report also clashes with what Washington heard at trial — like how police witnesses described a “bright shiny gun” on the stand, not something old and rusty. He said the report clearly shows him how SAPD has a history and accepted protocol of covering up messy cases to protect police officers.
“Frankly, it insults the intelligence of the citizens of San Antonio,” he said.