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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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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."


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