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Shots in the Dark

Prosecutors allowed Jamelle Swanson’s killer to walk. Swanson’s sister isn’t going so quietly.

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Shuree Jefferson knew something was wrong when her brother didn't answer his cell.

It was late evening creeping up on early morning, somewhere in the patch of static between April 7 and 8. Jefferson, a mother and business owner living out in Solon, had just fielded a strange call from her younger sister Carla. She wanted to know whether Shuree had spoken with their older brother, Jamelle Swanson. After Jefferson answered she hadn't, Carla said she would call back and hung up.

That's when Jefferson decided to try calling him herself. Jamelle always answered his phone, but this time it just rang on.

The oldest of the tight-knit group of siblings, 36-year-old Swanson lived on Cleveland's gritty near East Side, not far from where the family grew up. Carla still lived there too, and when she dialed up her anxious older sister again moments later, it was to report the news that was filtering through the block: Jamelle was lying dead on the floor of a nearby house.

Jefferson jumped in her car and sped from the suburbs to East 92nd. Swinging onto the street, she saw the neighbors on the sidewalk and patrol car lights painting the house fronts. An ambulance idled at the curb.

"When I pulled up I knew," Jefferson says today. "I already accepted it."

***

Police reports tend to be tight-lipped on details, and the paperwork from April 8 isn't any different. According to the records, Swanson was found dead from multiple gunshot wounds. Witnesses ID'd the shooter as a convicted felon named Delvon Sims. The evidence pointed to an aggravated murder charge.

But outside of those skinny details, nothing much about the case is clear. Since the traumatic first hours, Swanson's family has been caught in a crossfire of differing accounts. Concrete facts are in short supply. Witnesses have told different stories at different times. Police and prosecutors have broadcast mixed signals.

All that fog has only jacked up the family's frustration. Because outside of the confusion, one more fact is indisputable: The witnesses, police, and prosecutors agree that the triggerman was caught. Then he was cast back into the streets a free man.

"This is an injustice. Delvon murdered someone in cold blood and ran from the crime scene," Jefferson says one afternoon in her Solon home, located in a prim subdivision of well-maintained spreads on the suburb's southern edge. "We just want answers to how they could allow someone to be killed and let the murderer off."

Despite the turbulence and frustration of recent weeks, Jefferson hasn't let the emotional strain dent her calm exterior; petite and younger-looking than her 33 years, she rattles off the details of her brother's death with a succinct delivery, as if she's grown too accustomed to itemizing the tragedy's bullet points.

Suddenly the oldest sibling, Jefferson is running point on her family's effort to get answers — about what really happened that night, and why Cuyahoga County prosecutors declined to charge the shooter. It's a fight she's not afraid to wage, whether it means pounding on doors or standing up to obstinate suits downtown.

"The message the prosecutor's office is sending is that it's OK to kill someone and get away with it," Jefferson explains. "I'm a firecracker. I'm not backing down. I told them, we'll never go away."

***

The four brothers and sisters — Swanson, Jefferson, 29-year-old Bennett, and 25-year-old Carla — spent their early days on East 88th. After both parents passed away and the siblings started their own lives, the family bond remained tight. Jefferson ran the family construction and landscaping business. Swanson worked there. Off the clock the family socialized, spending a couple nights a week together going to movies, family functions, or having cookouts or dinners at Jefferson's Solon home.

But Swanson's home life on the near East Side stood in stark contrast to his sister's suburban existence. East 92nd is a cramped, short street shouldering crime and urban blight. According to family members who live nearby, crack is sold and used along the block; most young guys in the area view prison stints as the signpost of manhood. A weed-spewing lot near Swanson's house had the dubious distinction of being the county's first crime scene of 2011 when a man was found shot dead there on New Year's Day.

But Swanson chose to stay. Partly, it was because his roots were close; also, his longtime girlfriend, Nicole Woods, and their children kept him glued to the neighborhood the rest of his family worked hard to leave behind.

Relatives claim Swanson flew above the fray. "Quietest dude in the whole neighborhood," says Swanson's uncle, Henry Jefferson. "He didn't bother anyone. All he did was lift weights."

When he was younger, Swanson pulled a couple stints in jail on drug charges, but he'd left the street game behind. He and Woods shared the address with their five young children. Friends say the relationship could be rocky, and that the father was the primary earner and caregiver.

"He did everything for those kids," Henry Jefferson says.

Delvon Sims, a felon with a rap sheet of drug trafficking charges, stayed in the house next door with his uncle, Hershel Woods. The two families had known each other from the neighborhood for years. Sims also had a child with Nicole Woods' daughter. He and Swanson were considered friendly.

Although differing accounts of Swanson's last night are floating around, the stories are settled on the basics: At some point that evening, Swanson and Woods got into an argument after Swanson learned the kids had been left alone for an extended period of time.

Later, Sims came over to Swanson's home to get his child, who had spent the day with the others. And later still, Swanson and Nicole Woods went next door. He never came out. When police walked through the door, Swanson had been shot 12 times. Sims was gone, and so was the murder weapon.

***

Cleveland police immediately put out word on the suspect. After laying low for two weeks, Sims turned himself in.

Besides the murder of Swanson, Sims possibly faced a host of lesser offenses. As a convicted felon, he was forbidden to possess a firearm. He also left the crime scene with the gun, paving the way for a tampering with evidence charge.

But once the shooter was locked up, justice wasn't served as swiftly as Swanson's family expected. One Friday evening, Jefferson logged onto the county website to check on the status of the case; the file said the charge had been dropped and the man who shot her brother was back on the street.

"I was speechless. No one told us anything," she says. "We were not advised. They just released him."

On Monday morning, a distraught Jefferson and other family members accompanied their attorney to a sit-down at the Justice Center with Assistant Prosecutor Paul Miles and David Zimmerman, head of the major trials unit.

According to Jefferson, the prosecutors explained that they had dismissed the case due to the Castle Doctrine, a relatively new addition to the law books that says deadly force used by a resident against someone unlawfully on his or her property is presumed to be self-defense. The prosecutors explained they had witnesses who claimed Swanson had followed his girlfriend next door after an altercation. Once inside, he was asked by the residents to leave, but refused. He then allegedly took a gun from inside his pocket and waved it.

Jefferson was slack-jawed; the prosecutors' account contrasted with what she'd heard from the same witnesses in the strained days after the crime.

"I knew instantly that it was wrong. There were just too many loopholes," Jefferson says today. "Nothing made sense. Even if [Swanson] had an altercation with Nicole, I don't see why it would've caused Delvon to shoot him."

Jefferson was told earlier by police that Swanson had been found with a gun, but the weapon was in his pocket. The only fingerprints on it were his own.

During the meeting, the family disputed the prosecutors' summation of the killing and said the witnesses needed to be reinterviewed. Tempers flared; at one point, one of the prosecutors told the family that if Swanson had entered his house in the same manner, he would have shot him too.

"It was tense," recalls Jefferson's attorney, Carlos Johnson. "What you had were two different stories. The police and prosecutors were told one, and the family was told a different one. But [the prosecutors] said they were open to taking additional statements. From my impression, they agreed to send it to the grand jury and let them make a determination as to what should take place."

Prosecutors agreed to take new statements from the witnesses and have the information before the grand jury by the third week of May, Jefferson claims. But when that deadline flew by without action, she called on Zimmerman again. This time, she says, she was told that the prosecutors had made no such promises.

"They lied to us," she says today.

***

Jefferson hadn't been cooling her heels as she waited to hear back from the prosecutor's office. She cornered eyewitnesses from the night of the shooting, grilling them on what they saw. She even recorded one such conversation, with Sims' uncle, Hershel Woods. On tape, the man spells out a play by play that stands in contrast to the account prosecutors were going by.

"He didn't have to kill him. He really didn't have to kill him. It could have been resolved in a different way," Woods repeats throughout the recording, which Jefferson played for Scene.

On the tape, Woods also admits that he and his nephew were both "all fucked up" on booze and weed at the time of the altercation. Swanson came over to the house with Nicole Woods, but was leaving when Sims pulled the trigger. This version better aligns with the fact that Swanson was shot in the back.

Woods' recorded account also dismisses the notion that Swanson was unlawfully on the property. "Jamelle was always welcome," the uncle says. "We were cool.

"He did not threaten me," Woods said. "I can't answer to why he shot him." (Woods did not return Scene's initial call for comment. When the number was tried again, the line had been disconnected.)

The tape could be vital in determining whether prosecutors appropriately invoked the Castle Doctrine. According to longtime Cleveland appellate lawyer and legal blogger Russ Bensing, legitimate use of the doctrine is based on establishing that the shooter had a lawful reason to be on the property and that the victim's presence was unlawful. That open invitation could be interpreted as a lawful reason for being on the property. Had Swanson waved a gun, he would have violated the lawfulness. But even in such a case, it's arguable Sims would not have had grounds for self-defense.

"It's not self-defense if I'm not in fear of death or great bodily harm or, second, if I use force that's excessive," Bensing explains. "The thing that sticks with me here is the 12 bullet holes." Also, if the victim had his back to the shooter, it's tough to argue the shooter was in fear of death or harm.

"If this happened out on the street," Bensing muses, "that would be a real hard self-defense claim."

***

Shuree Jefferson's beef with prosecutors over their failure to at least present the charges to the grand jury has led her to file a complaint with the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association. She's also megaphoning her displeasure into every available avenue: The family staged evening protests outside the Justice Center to draw eyes to the cause, and Jefferson has fired off letters to Mayor Frank Jackson, Prosecutor Bill Mason, and other local government brass. She's even trying to tap the nuclear option for civil rights offenses: Reverend Al Sharpton.

It's hard to tell whether the noise has broken through. When Scene initially contacted Cleveland Police about the homicide, a spokesman said the case file was closed. Days later, when Scene attempted to review the files related to the shooting, the police records department said the file was in fact still open and could not be provided to the public.

Calls to Zimmerman and Miles were not returned. When contacted for comment, prosecutor's office spokesman Ryan Miday cited the Castle Doctrine and other court decisions that state the right to self defense legally trumps other law. Questions about Jefferson's dealing with the office were not answered.

"The Cleveland Police Department and this office are always willing to review additional evidence presented," Miday wrote to Scene. Jefferson has also received indications the office is interested in additional statements.

Although the information gathered by Jefferson may dump ample doubt on the Castle Doctrine defense, it's another matter whether it could play inside a courtroom. In light of how the interviews were conducted, the statements could be considered to have been made under duress and therefore inadmissible in court. For the sake of legal legitimacy, witnesses must make their statements directly to authorities.

And that's been Jefferson's latest hurdle. On tape, Hershel Woods repeatedly says he's willing to go downtown and give police a new statement about the shooting. Jamelle Swanson's girlfriend, Nicole Woods, is also willing to alter her account, Jefferson says. But both have dropped off the map in recent weeks. Street talk says Woods has left town for North Carolina, where Sims may also be staying. Jefferson says every time she tries to make an appointment with the woman, she cancels at the last minute. (Scene made several unsuccessful attempts to interview Woods.)

To Jefferson, the recent reticence is easy to explain.

"Delvon is free now," she says simply. "They're afraid."

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