One of the young men implicated in the case of a Hartford man murdered during a dispute over a pair of stolen designer sunglasses early last year was released from custody Thursday after a judge found an unusual technicality that unraveled prosecutors’ case.
After almost 18 months behind bars, 26-year-old Quinton Prince walked out of Superior Court in Hartford a free man Thursday afternoon after a judge found no probable cause to charge him with felony murder and prosecutors declined to further pursue a pair of robbery charges.
Prince may be free for only a few weeks, however, as prosecutors appear poised to draft a new arrest warrant charging him with manslaughter and threatening offenses as the decision in Prince’s case this week is expected to throw new twists into the cases against all five other men and women charged in the case.
“Mr. Prince I just want to indicate something to you,” Judge David P. Gold cautioned Prince during the hearing Thursday just before he was released. “Obviously this brings to a close, at least for the time being, this case .... but as I’m sure [defense attorney Gerald Klein] has told you, the state has announced its intention to continue to prosecute you in terms of this case.
“My no-probable-cause finding does not preclude the state from continuing or reinstituting a case against you and I suspect based on comments made, that that’s likely to be the case.”
Prince was one of six people charged with the murder of 23-year-old Kashnielle Haye, whom police found shot in the head inside a Super 8 motel room in January 2020 following an elaborate plot to retaliate against Haye for stealing a pair of Cartier sunglasses. By February 2020, police had arrested all six, including Jehroam Ormsby, Denzell Bell, Kareem Andrew, Tiasjah Acosta and Andrea Silvers.
Prosecutors charged the entire group with felony murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree robbery and attempted first-degree robbery and all have remained in custody since then — until Prince’s release Thursday.
Crucially, felony murder is defined under state law as a person or several people who commit or attempt to commit another crime, such as robbery, and another person is killed in the course of or in furtherance of that crime.
Prince was the only member of the group to request a hearing of probable cause, at which prosecutors had to outline to a judge the evidence and testimony proving they have cause to proceed with their murder case against him.
At that hearing earlier this month, prosecutors outlined their case that Ormsby had conspired with the women to get Haye drunk in a motel room, under the impression they would all have sex, while he and Bell and Prince came to the room to take the sunglasses back from Haye. A scuffle ensued, ending with Haye’s death.
But Gold dropped a bombshell at a hearing last week, suggesting the whole felony murder case may be moot pursuant to a 2006 Connecticut Supreme Court decision that concluded a person did not commit larceny by taking back their property from the person who initially stole it from them.
Therefore, Gold reasoned, if no larceny or robbery occurred when Haye was killed, Prince could not be prosecuted for felony murder for Haye’s death “in the course of or in furtherance of” a crime that did not occur.
Gold gave prosecutors a week to examine that Supreme Court case and present their analysis back to him on Wednesday, but instead, prosecutors attempted to substitute new first-degree manslaughter and first-degree threatening charges. Prosecutors then withdrew those substituted charges Thursday.
Based on the Supreme Court precedent, Gold ruled there was no probable cause to charge Prince with felony murder and prosecutors agreed to “nolle” the two remaining robbery and conspiracy charges, effectively withdrawing them as well.
The ruling freed Prince, who has been in custody in lieu of $1.25 million bond since his February 2020 arrest. His family and several friends, who were in the courtroom for both days of proceedings this week, greeted him with a change of clothes as he traded in his orange prison jumpsuit after the unusual turn of events.
That relief is expected to be short-lived, however, because Prince’s defense attorney Klein and Gold indicated prosecutors intend to draft a new arrest warrant with new manslaughter and threatening charges against Prince that could be served as soon as next month.
Gold warned Prince that should that happen, his conduct between now and then and the status of several pending motor vehicle cases against him will factor into how he is received in court when he returns.
“I certainly urge you to consider Mr. Klein’s advice about how to comport yourself, because it likely will be this court or another court’s duty to determine your bond at a later point,” Gold said.
Probable cause hearings are themselves relatively rare — defense attorneys often recommend their defendants waive them as a defensive strategy ahead of a trial — but a finding of no probable cause for a murder charge is extremely rare.
“Forty-plus years of doing this I’ve probably had 20 probable cause hearings,” Klein said. “I’ve never had a finding of no probable cause on felony murder. Not only have I not done that, I can’t remember hearing of anything else like this.”
It’s not immediately clear how the decision will affect the other five defendants in the case, but Klein expects it will make a large impact, especially in the cases against Ormsby and Bell, who like Prince are accused of being in the room and involved in the confrontation with Haye when Haye was shot and killed.
All five of the defendants already have waived their hearings of probable cause, however, and their cases are proceeding this summer. Ormsby is already on the list for trial, but it is still waiting to be scheduled as the courts continue to work through a backlog of in-person jury trials caused by shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zach Murdock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.