Wednesday morning over at the Justice Center, a criminal trial is scheduled to kick off in the courtroom of Judge Joseph Russo. Devonta Hill is facing a hefty stack of criminal charges — including murder, felonious assault, involuntary manslaughter, and aggravated riot. But unlike most of the courtroom business unfolding today downtown, what makes Hill's case such a standout is that no one with their head screwed on right thinks the 23-year-old should be in this position.
That's because the case against Hill is over the 2012 shooting death of Kenny Smith — a death that came at the hands of a Cleveland police officer, a death that a federal jury last year determined was the police officer's fault, not Devonta Hill's.
To recap: in March 2012, local rapper Kenny Smith was at a downtown club when the room cleared after a brawl. Shots were reported. The police were called. In the melee, Smith was separated from the friends he'd driven with. Instead, he jumped in the car of a older acquaintance — Devonta Hill. The car was stopped by Cleveland Police officer Roger Jones. At some point in the next moments, Jones shot Smith in the head. The officer later claimed Smith lunged for a gun in Hill's car. The driver was taken into custody and charged with Smith's death
Over the next three years, Smith's family filed a federal lawsuit against the officer involved while Hill's own criminal case was left stalled out on the court docket. Now, with a federal jury verdict nailing the blame for Smith's death directly to Rogers, Hill's attorneys are asking Judge Russo to toss out the criminal case.
"At this point, the argument is that the state has failed to prepare their case and present their case," Michael J. Downing, Hill's attorney, told Scene
last week. "We're asking the judge to dismiss, and if it is dismissed, it could be dismissed without prejudice, which means he can be re-indicted. But now it's up to the judge. This has gone on long enough."
Coincidentally, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office is also trying to pump the breaks on the case. In court filings, the office has asked for a continuance because the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department is currently investigating Jones' role in the shooting.
"After the federal case concluded, Prosecutor McGinty asked the Sheriff’s department to do a review of the case to see if there was any fresh evidence," office spokesman Joe Frolik said last week. "We are still waiting for that report."
But how serious is that investigation? It's impossible not to weigh the Smith shooting without considering the jumbled conclusions of the Tamir Rice investigation, or to not see the legal-system slapstick of having a federal jury laying liability for Smith's death with a police officer while the prosecutor's office charges forward against Hill. You got to wonder: who is thinking clearly here?
On that note, according to Terry Gilbert, the civil attorney representing Kenny Smith's family, none of the family's experts or witnesses have been contacted by the sheriff to share the evidence or analysis that lead to the federal jury decision.
"We never got any kind of confirmation that indicated they were actually doing anything," Gilbert told Scene last week. The attorney, however, sees the Hill situation for what it is. "This guy shouldn't be under charges. They should dismiss it."
[Ed. note: This story, published on Feb. 1, originally referenced a Feb. 1 trial date. The trial has since been rescheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 3. We've amended the story to reflect that.]