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UVa shooting suspect waives preliminary hearing

Making his first public appearance in eight months, Christopher Darnell Jones Jr. waived a preliminary hearing Monday in Albemarle County court, where he faces 10 felony charges, including three counts of second-degree murder, after the Nov. 13 shooting that left three University of Virginia students dead and two others injured.

"In a case like this where the facts are so well laid out, sometimes it makes sense to waive the preliminary hearing, because it would seem scripted otherwise," veteran criminal defense attorney Scott Goodman told The Daily Progress. "Everyone knows what all the questions and all the answers are."

Jones, then a student who had previously played on the UVa football team, is accused of opening fire on sleeping and unsuspecting fellow students inside a chartered bus returning from a field trip to see an out-of-state theatrical production. The injured were student-athletes Marlee Morgan and Michael Hollins.

Those killed were football players Lavel Davis Jr., Devin Chandler and D’Sean Perry. Their deaths were a blow to the UVa community. Their numbers — 1, 15 and 41 — have appeared across Charlottesville on Beta Bridge, fraternity row, car bumper stickers and storefronts since the tragic day as tributes to the young men.

"Please know we will do everything we can to honor their lives," UVa President Jim Ryan wrote in an open letter immediately after the shooting. "And we’ll come together as a community to mourn these losses."

Flanked by his lawyers, public defender Liz Murtagh and her chief deputy Nicholas J. Reppucci, inside the main courtroom at the Albemarle County Courthouse in downtown Charlottesville, the 23-year-old Jones wore a heavier beard that the one sported in his booking photo. He was clad in a crisp jail jumpsuit and restrained by chains. He has been held without bail at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail since his Nov. 14 arrest.

Judge Andrew Sneathern presided over Monday’s hearing because the court’s usual judge, Matthew Quatrara, signed the search warrants in the case. Sneathern asked Jones a series of questions, including whether Murtagh had been properly communicative about the waiver process.

"Yes, she’s been very helpful," said Jones.

Goodman, the legal analyst, said that one reason to waive in Albemarle County is the transparency of the prosecutor.

"Albemarle’s commonwealth’s attorney’s office is a completely open book," said Goodman. "There’s nothing held back."

Goodman said that because it has had nine months to examine the investigative file, the defense team already knows the commonwealth’s evidence and doesn’t lose anything by waiving what is often called a "probable cause" hearing.

"Every witness, the medical examiner, all of those statements have been turned over to the defense," said Goodman. "The evidence is overwhelming on that score."

The judge accepted the waiver, so the next step is a closed-door presentation of the allegations to a grand jury. At that point, if the grand jury agrees to indict, the case will move from Albemarle County General District Court to Albemarle County Circuit Court. The county has jurisdiction because the oldest parts of UVa Grounds, although surrounded by the city of Charlottesville, are part of Albemarle.

A widely interviewed witness has said that Jones opened fire after the bus stopped on Culbreth Road after a field trip to Washington, D.C., to see “The Ballad of Emmett Till.” Other than a cryptic utterance about a video game, the witness said, Jones gave no warning.

UVa has faced criticism after officials acknowledged that they had been previously alerted by a roommate that Jones kept a gun in his dormitory and that they only later learned Jones had failed to disclose a prior criminal conviction for carrying a concealed weapon.

A police search warrant inventory obtained by The Daily Progress shows that officers seized a pistol, a semi-automatic rifle, ammunition and a device designed to multiply trigger pulls inside Jones’ Brandon Avenue residence hall.

Goodman said the commonwealth could attempt to elevate the murder charges when the grand jury meets in October. The maximum sentence for each count of second-degree murder in Virginia is 40 years, while each first-degree conviction can bring a maximum life sentence. Additionally, when Virginia abolished the death penalty two years ago, it revamped the underlying charge, capital murder, which includes multiple-death slayings, as "aggravated murder" and fixed the sentence at life in prison.

"All the options are still on the table for the commonwealth to seek greater charges," said Goodman.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley, one of three prosecutors appearing Monday, spoke little at the hearing and declined to take questions from The Daily Progress afterward.

In addition to the three murder charges, Jones faces two malicious wounding charges and five firearms charges.

For a community still in mourning over such inexplicable deaths, Goodman named one other benefit of waiving the preliminary hearing.

"It’s very traumatic for the victims’ families, and this spares them from having to listen to the same evidence twice," he said.

In the meantime, the commonwealth has hired lawyers from global law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan to conduct an independent investigation of the shooting. Those close to the matter have told The Daily Progress that investigation’s conclusions may be available as soon as late summer or early fall.


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