Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates on Friday ended the controversial murder prosecution of Keith Davis Jr., a man who has stood trial four times in a deadly shooting and whose case became a cause célèbre among advocates, criminal justice activists and others in the city.

Baltimore State's Attorney Ivan Bates answers questions from reporters at about the decision to drop the murder case against Keith Davis Jr., at his office in Baltimore, Friday, January 13, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

During a hearing at about 8:45 a.m., Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn asked prosecutors if there were any cases that they wanted to place on an inactive docket or drop. “Keith Davis, your honor,” Deputy State’s Attorney Tom Donnelly replied.

Donnelly then indicated that he wished to drop all counts against Davis, 31, who was set to stand trial for a fifth time starting on May 2 on charges of second-degree murder and use of a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence in the killing of Kevin Jones, a security guard at Pimlico Race Course, which happened before 5 a.m. on June 7, 2015.

That’s in addition to dismissing counts of attempted first-degree murder and related offenses that the state later filed in connection to an alleged fight at the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center on June 2, 2020.

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“All right,” Phinn said, “Nol pros is entered.”

In less than five minutes, it was over. And by 10:17 a.m., Davis was free.

No one was in the courtroom in the Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse except for the judge, court staff and one sheriff’s deputy. The matter was kept quiet leading up to the hearing and did not appear on the daily court docket. Immediately after the court proceedings, Bates sent out a statement.

Because he spoke about the case on the campaign trail, Bates said, he assigned his deputy state’s attorney to conduct a review. Donnelly, he said, looked at all the pertinent information, analyzed the law and concluded that “we should not continue this prosecution.”

“Today’s dismissal is about the prosecutorial missteps of my predecessor in her pursuit of a conviction at all costs,” Bates said. “As State’s Attorney, I have a duty to ensure justice for all, not just the victim but also the accused.”

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Donnelly said in a statement that it was clear that a “blatant disregard for the rules of professional responsibility and the law has permeated throughout the attempted prosecutions of Mr. Davis.” The handling of the murder case and the timing and decision to the file additional charges, he said, “caused serious questions regarding the integrity and legitimacy of any further prosecution.”

A jury twice could not reach a unanimous verdict. Meanwhile, judges overturned convictions on two occasions.

“We are extremely grateful that Mr. Davis is finally free and reunited with his family,” Deborah Katz Levi, Davis’ attorney and director of special litigation for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore, said in a statement.

“After four trials for a crime he did not commit, all guilty verdicts were overturned for police, prosecutor, and even court error,” she added. “We are grateful that the State’s Attorney’s Office understood that this case was replete with so many past mistakes and evidentiary issues, which all amounted to a denial of Mr. Davis’s right to Due Process and a loss of confidence in the criminal justice system.”

Levi said she is thankful for everyone who stood behind and championed her client, adding that “we look forward to continuing our mission to fight for those who suffer from a lack of fairness, justice and due process in this system of criminal justice.”

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Later, Levi tweeted several photos, including a picture of Davis smiling while sitting in a car and posing with supporters.

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Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue in a statement called the repeated prosecutions and 7 1/2 years that Davis spent incarcerated awaiting trial “counter to any concept of justice.”

When reached by phone, Gloria Hill, Jones’ aunt, was emotional and said her family has been through a lot over the years. She raised him.

“I don’t have nothing nice to say,” said Hill, who declined to speak further.

Family member Reginald Jones said he only learned on Thursday of the state’s attorney’s office’s intention to dismiss the case, and stated that he was still processing the information.

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Earlene Neals, Kevin Jones’ grandmother, said her family feels blindsided. She said she learned on Thursday afternoon that prosecutors would dismiss the case.

“I just completely lost it. I was screaming, hollering. I said, ‘They couldn’t do this. Why could they do this?’” Neals said. “They said it was because Marilyn Mosby violated his rights, and they would have to let him go. I don’t understand.”

Neals said her family has also endured the emotional drama of the case over the years. Now, she has little hope that her grandson’s killing will ever be solved.

“They said that the police will still be looking into it. That’s it. And after five years? I don’t understand. I definitely don’t understand,” she said.

From the beginning, Davis has proclaimed his innocence. He was the first person Baltimore Police shot after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who suffered fatal injuries while in custody. Davis maintained that officers planted a handgun near him.

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Davis’ wife, Kelly, and advocates including DeRay Mckesson, a civil rights activist in Baltimore, have for years championed Davis’ innocence. The campaign has included protests, billboards and social media posts featuring the hashtag #FreeKeithDavisJr. Part of that push included the concept of #FreeKeithFriday — which so happened to be when the hearing took place.

In a statement, Mckesson said, “Because of the community’s long and enduring fight against this injustice, Keith is finally where he belongs — at home with this family. After years of malicious attacks and questionable decisions by the former Baltimore City State’s Attorney, an innocent man is free.”

Mckesson also tweeted, “Keith Davis Jr. is free. Thank you to everyone who fought to make this happen. We did it!” The tweet included a produced video about the case.

“We’ve been in this fight for so long but we never lost hope. Years ago, I made the promise that I wasn’t going to stop fighting, organizing, and advocating until Keith was released,” Kelly Davis said in a statement. “Now, I’m grateful and beyond relieved to have my husband home.”

Supporters have raised numerous questions about the credibility of the evidence and repeatedly called for the state’s attorney to drop the charges. Colin Miller, a professor of law at the University of South Carolina School of Law, editor of EvidenceProf Blog and co-host of the podcast “Undisclosed,” has compared the prosecution to the case of Curtis Flowers, a Black man who was tried six times in Mississippi for the same crime. He was freed in 2019 following a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Police were investigating the attempted robbery of a hack driver on June 7, 2015, and chased Davis into a garage on Eleanora Avenue near Hayward Avenue in Northwest Baltimore. Officers fired dozens of shots, striking him three times in the face, arm and back.

Davis was found not guilty of all charges in that case in 2016 except for one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Seven days later, Davis was charged with first-degree murder and related offenses in Jones’ killing. The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office did not charge Davis with attempted first-degree murder and related offenses in connection to the alleged fight at the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center until 11 days after he was awarded a fifth trial.

The case has long galvanized people in their discussions of the criminal justice system in Baltimore and played a role in the Democratic primary for state’s attorney.

Davis’ supporters unleashed their ire at the state’s attorney at the time, Marilyn Mosby, for the continued efforts to prosecute the case as well as for her behavior.

For instance, Mosby gave the middle finger to one supporter, Sean Gearhart, in 2021 after he called out, “Free Keith Davis Jr.” while she was at a bar in Harbor East.

She initially claimed that she was only raising her thumb. That’s despite the fact that the interaction was captured on video.

In 2022, Davis moved to dismiss the indictment based on selective or vindictive prosecution.

Baltimore Circuit Judge John S. Nugent ruled that prosecutors appeared to have vindictively acted when they brought the new criminal case against Davis and ordered the state to produce objective evidence to the contrary.

Later, Nugent found Mosby in constructive civil contempt of court for violating a gag order in the case. She had responded to a comment on a video about the prosecution on @murder_ink_bmore on Instagram and wrote, “You really shouldn’t believe everything you read.”

Bates went on to defeat Mosby, who’s awaiting trial on federal perjury and false mortgage application charges, in the Democratic primary. He ran unopposed on Election Day.

Davis’ supporters worked the polls for Bates. He made good on a campaign promise.

In a previous interview with The Baltimore Banner, Bates said he would drop the charges or, upon the request of the Jones family, he might refer the case to another jurisdiction for an independent review.

Speaking to reporters in a conference room in the state’s attorney’s office, Bates said he made those remarks before a judge found a presumption of vindictive prosecution. That finding, he said, “totally separated it to a whole other level for us.”

Bates said the decision to drop the charges was “the right thing to do.” His deputy state’s attorney, he said, was able to review some transcripts in the case before the new administration took office.

Besides the procedural missteps in the case, Bates mentioned other factors such as how Mosby was found in contempt of court. Her fingerprints, he said, were all over the prosecution. “This was a personal case to that individual,” he said.

“The thing that we’re here to do is justice,” Bates said. “And we feel that this decision represents justice.”

Meanwhile, Mosby said, “This case has always been about the pursuit of justice for Kevin Jones and his family.”

Bates said he met on Thursday with members of Jones’ family. He described their conversation as emotional and private but stated that he told them that it was a difficult decision. Even until “the last second this morning,” Bates said, he had to think and pray about the move.

Bates said he also informed Police Commissioner Michael Harrison on Thursday about the decision to drop the charges and asked law enforcement to take a “fresh look” at the case.

“This is still an open murder case as far as I’m concerned,” Bates said. “At the end of the day, I want to give respect to the victim and the victim’s family.”

On Christmas, Hassan Giordano, a political and communications consultant who worked on Bates’ inauguration, tweeted words of encouragement at Kelly Davis. She wrote that she was missing her husband.

“Stay up Queen!” Giordano wrote. “Understand that he will be home before you know it, as this will be the last holidays without your king!”

Less than three weeks later, that prediction came true.

—Enterprise reporter Tim Prudente and investigative reporter Justin Fenton contributed reporting to this article.