Court orders poll in Pownall case

A survey will be used to help determine whether an out-of-country jury is used in ex-cop Ryan Pownall’s murder trial.

In June 2017, Black Lives Matter held a protest outside the 15th Police District. TIMES FILE PHOTO

A state judge on Wednesday, June 26, ordered that a poll be conducted to determine if ex-police officer Ryan Pownall, who is facing a murder charge for the 2017 on-duty shooting of David Jones, can have a fair trial with a Philadelphia jury.

It will be the first time such a survey is conducted in the city, though the measure has been used in other counties. 

Pownall’s attorneys, Fortunato “Fred” Perri Jr. and Charles Gibbs, pushed to have a poll done to prove that their client needs an out-of-county jury for a fair trial. 

The case has generated an immense amount of news stories, in addition to protests and controversy.

Gibbs spoke about what he called the “inflammatory press coverage,” and pointed specifically to comments Police Commissioner Richard Ross made at a September 2017 press conference announcing Pownall’s firing. Ross, Gibbs said, made conclusions about Pownall’s criminal conduct.

“That press conference generated 30-some articles,” Gibbs said.

Ross could not be reached for comment through the Philadelphia Police Department’s public affairs division.

During the 2017 press conference, Ross said Jones posed no immediate threat to officers when he was shot and criticized Pownall’s “poor judgment.”

Assistant District Attorney Tracy Tripp noted there has been a significant “cooling off period” since Ross’ comments. 

Court of Common Pleas Judge Barbara McDermott said it will come down to whether the jury can distinguish between evidence needed to dismiss someone from their job and the burden of proof needed for a criminal conviction.

Gibbs also brought up the more recent Facebook scandal in the Police Department, which led to 72 officers being assigned to desk duty. The move came after the Plain View Project revealed questionable social media posts made by Philadelphia officers, some of which involved race.

Jury members could negatively view Pownall and lump him in with those who made the posts, believing that cops are racist, Gibbs said.

“This Facebook thing is an inferno that we can’t ignore,” he added.

Tripp questioned whether these stories, only tangentially related to Pownall’s case, really would have any impact on the ability to get a fair jury in the city. 

“There is a distinction here, and it’s the racial component,” McDermott responded. “It’s a racial issue and a law enforcement issue.”

Ultimately, McDermott decided to order a survey for Aug. 6 and gave both sides a week to submit potential questions. 

The goal will be to decide what percentage of city residents have heard about the case and how many have a fixed opinion on it. Sixty people will be brought in from the jury room and questioned, similar to what is done during the jury selection process before a trial.

McDermott left the option open to do one or two more polls if necessary before the trial, which is scheduled for January. 

Pownall, 36, of Bustleton, who is free on bail and attended the hearing, is charged with third-degree murder and other crimes in connection with Jones’ death. 

He was assigned to the 15th District at the time of the shooting and was transporting a man and two children to the Special Victims Unit when he stopped Jones, who was riding a dirt bike near Whitaker and Hunting Park avenues in Feltonville.

Pownall frisked Jones and felt a gun, and a brief scuffle ensued, according to a grand jury report. The report found that Jones threw his gun away and Pownall shot him twice in the back.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 has backed Pownall throughout the process, arguing the shooting was justified. ••

Jack Tomczuk can be reached at jtomczuk@newspapermediagroup.com.