WEST PALM BEACH —
UPDATE: At a hearing in the Broward County Courthouse this morning, the Broward State Attorney’s Office dropped all charges against Joni Donley.
After being tracked down, arrested and charged with premeditated murder and left alone in an interview room, Donley was heard saying to himself, aloud: “You killed somebody, Jon. How could you? How could you have done that? Oh, my God. I took a life.”
Solid evidence? Apparently not.
The prosecutor’s expected decision today: to drop the case.
That’s devastating to the family of David Grant, a 49-year-old West Palm Beach native who died July 18, 2012, allegedly at the hands of the 28-year-old Broward College student he was tutoring in calculus. Donley, an African-American man from Riviera Beach and Pembroke Pines, told police that Grant, who was white, set him off by calling him a racial slur.
A status hearing in the case is scheduled for today, and both Grant’s sister and the defense attorney said prosecutors told them they planned to drop the charge, which already was reduced to manslaughter. Donley has been free on $10,000 bond since shortly after the arrest.
Ron Ishoy, communications manager for the Broward State Attorney’s Office, said Wednesday that prosecutors would not discuss the case until after the hearing. “At that point, we would have some sort of resolution.”
“We’re absolutely devastated,” Carol Field, Grant’s sister, said this week. “David was such an incredible, wonderful man and so loved by his family, and for five years we have been patiently waiting for the State Attorney’s Office to get justice for David. And after five years of waiting and hoping and thinking about David every day and missing him every day, to get that kind of news, it’s devastating and confusing.”
According to Field, a civil law attorney, prosecutors said they were dropping the case because a student who was the key eyewitness completed his education and moved back home to Saudi Arabia.
Defense attorney Fred Haddad, meanwhile, developed his own theory of the case. Though he feels bad for the family, he said: “We’ve had several medical experts look at it, various depositions. I had one of the top forensic pathologists in the country as well as another doctor review it. The cause of death (determined by the medical examiner) was probably in error. It was a heart attack, more than likely.”
Grant and Donley agreed to meet the night of July 17 at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Davie, where Grant lived. Donley needed help preparing for a Calculus 2 test scheduled for the next day.
Sometime after midnight, a delivery man heard them arguing inside the shop, an exchange also captured on the store’s video surveillance system. The argument continued as the two exited to the shop’s patio area, where two witnesses said it turned physical after Grant called Donley a slur.
“Donley then kicked Grant, which caused him to fall to the ground,” a police affidavit said. “Donley then got on top of Grant and began to choke him until he fell unconscious. Donley then entered his vehicle … and fled the scene.”
One witness called 911 during the fight and got Donley’s license plate number as he drove away. The second witness, Ahmad Alsuvae, went to check on Grant and found he wasn’t breathing and his face was turning blue.
Based on the license plate number, a detective found Donley at home a few hours later. Donley was wearing the same clothes as seen on the Dunkin’ Donuts video, but a different shirt. In the house, the detective found a bloody shirt, according to the affidavit.
Donley told the detective he knew why the detective was there and that he was going to come to the police station that day to give a statement.
While being read his Miranda rights, he asked if Grant was OK. He also told police, “He constantly provoked me and called me the N-word.”
Tameika Osbourne, a classmate of Donley’s who also was tutored by Grant, said she never heard Grant use racial slurs. But she said that there had been tension between student and tutor over Donley’s difficulty in grasping the subject and his resentment at being asked to pay the full $20 for each 2½-hour tutoring session even when it was a group session.
“She stated Grant told her because he is a ‘redneck’ and Donley is a ‘prideful black man,’ he feels like he has a difficult time tutoring Donley.”
Alsuvae told police in an interview the day of the crime that he saw Donley kick Grant and put his hands around Grant’s neck for 15 seconds, until Grant stopped moving.
But according to Field, Grant’s sister, prosecutors failed to attend the defense attorneys’ deposition of Alsuvae. They also failed to send the required notice to the defense in advance, to legally preserve the testimony for the prosecution in case the witness left the country, she said.
Prosecutors received a copy of the deposition, in which Alsuvae said he planned to return to Saudi Arabia after he completed his schooling. But they did nothing to maintain contact and ensure he’d be available to testify at trial, Field said.
Still, Field said, the assistant state attorney who was in charge of the case at that point, Alberto Ribas Jr., now a circuit court judge, assured her he would bring the case to trial nonetheless. But that was then.
About three months ago Assistant State Attorney Gina Hawkins and the office’s supervisor in charge of homicide cases, Shari Tate, met with Field and her husband and Field’s sister, “face-to-face,” Field said. “They point-blank admitted the reason why they’re dropping the case is because they lost the key witness and did not preserve the testimony.”
She describes her brother as “one of the most big-hearted, open-minded, wonderful persons you could know.”
“He was patient, kind, he was gentle. Most of his students were from a diverse background,” she added.
“I can’t say why Joni did what Joni did but I can say what he did was immoral and awful and he ought to pay for it,” Field said.
“That’s quite frankly what is just so incredibly difficult to understand because there’s a free man out there who killed another human being with his bare hands, left him on the pavement, went on living his life and now we’re being told will never be held accountable for his actions. We just can’t understand that. We want justice for David.”