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Murder charges against a man accused of taking part in the 2011 killing of Old Dominion University student Christopher Cummings were dismissed Thursday by a Norfolk judge at the end of a sometimes heated court hearing in which defense attorneys accused prosecutors of misconduct.
Circuit Judge Tasha Scott dismissed all 15 charges Ahmad Watson had faced with prejudice, meaning prosecutors can’t seek to re-charge him later. The move came after the 30-year-old Hampton resident spent nearly a year in jail awaiting trial.
Cummings, a 20-year-old nephew of the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, was killed during a June 10, 2011 home invasion at an off-campus house he shared with a roommate. The case remained cold for a decade before police announced they’d arrested and charged the four men last August.
Watson is now the second of four men charged in the fatal shooting who no longer faces prosecution in the case.
Charges against Kwaume Edwards were dismissed with prejudice last month by Circuit Judge Jack Doyle after prosecutors conceded they hadn’t turned over information to the defense in a timely manner. That decision came just days before Edwards’ trial was set to begin.
“This case has been mishandled from the very beginning,” defense attorney Michael Massie said after Thursday’s hearing. “They should have never indicted Mr. Watson” or any of his co-defendants.
Standing outside the courthouse Thursday with his father and attorneys at his side, Watson said he and the others arrested with him had grown up together. Watson also was friends with Cummings, and denied having any involvement in his death.
Cummings was majoring in criminal justice at ODU when he was killed. His roommate also was shot but survived.
Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Cynthia Collard told a judge during a court hearing in November that in addition to being a student, Cummings had been dealing marijuana on the side. She said he was shot during a robbery attempt committed by Watson and his friends.
Collard claimed at the hearing that cell phones for all four men had pinged off a tower near ODU at the time the crime was committed, and used that allegation to successfully argue they should remain jailed while their cases were pending.
But that wasn’t true, Massie told the judge during Thursday’s hearing. The men’s phones had actually been pinging off a tower in Newport News when Cummings was shot, he said.
Prosecutors also gave the defense wrong information when they claimed a witness had picked Watson out of a photo lineup, the defense lawyer said.
“They don’t have a single piece of evidence — or a single witness — that can point to Mr. Watson’s involvement in this case,” Massie said.
Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Ramin Fatehi attended Thursday’s hearing and conceded mistakes had been made.
Fatehi, a longtime member of the Norfolk prosecutor’s office who was elected to lead it a few months after the men were indicted, told the judge he hadn’t supported seeking indictments in the case. It was his predecessor, Greg Underwood, who made the decision, he said.
Yet Fatehi asked Scott on Thursday to instead dismiss the charges against Watson without prejudice so that his office could potentially bring them back if they later obtained sufficient evidence.
Collard, the prosecutor assigned to the case, told the judge she had no doubt Watson was involved. But she also said the prosecution’s case “had basically fallen apart” and that she was not prepared to move forward with it.
Charges against the other two co-defendants are still pending. Javon Doyle is scheduled for trial on Aug. 23 and Rashad Dooley’s is set for Sept. 10. Both were recently released on bond after having spent close to a year in jail.
Doyle’s lawyer, Emily Munn, said they’re planning a vigorous defense.
“I have heard for more than a month that the prosecution is ‘re-examining’ the cases but have had no contact about the findings of that examination and my trial is only five weeks away,” Munn said. “In my opinion, this story is far from over.”
Massie and attorney Nathan Chapman, who also represents Watson, said they’ll now seek to have the charges expunged from their client’s record. They also plan to file a prosecutorial misconduct claim against the commonwealth’s attorney’s office.
“It begs the question: How does one make this number of errors in a case of this magnitude?” Massie asked. “These are very serious charges. They tied his life up. They let him sit in jail for almost a year. It’s not just a disservice to him. It’s a disservice to the entire criminal justice system. And it’s a disservice to the Cummings family.”
Jane Harper, firstname.lastname@example.org