Murder Suspect Has Witness: A MetroCard

By Benjamin Weiser

When Jason Jones was arrested in a fatal shooting in the Bronx in May, he told the police that he had been nowhere near the scene. He said he had left work, ridden the bus with some co-workers and cashed his paycheck, and later had taken a subway to see his girlfriend.

Federal prosecutors charged Mr. Jones and his older brother, Corey, in the shooting, saying they had killed the victim because he had been a government witness in drug and gun cases. Both men could face the death penalty if the government decides to seek it.

But in recent weeks, the case has taken an extraordinary turn — because of Jason Jones’s MetroCard.

Months after the arrests, a retired detective working for Mr. Jones’s lawyers drove to a city jail located on a barge moored in the East River in the South Bronx, where Mr. Jones had been held after his arrest, and retrieved his wallet. The MetroCard was still inside.

Mr. Jones’s lawyers then asked New York City Transit to use the card to trace his movements the night of the shooting. The results supported his account, showing that the card had been used on a bus, and later on a subway roughly five miles from the shooting, just as he had described.

With that, and a photograph snapped of Mr. Jones, 26, as he cashed his paycheck, his lawyers argued that it was impossible for him to have committed the crime. Both brothers have been released on bond for now, an unusual step in a federal murder case, while prosecutors say they are continuing to investigate.

Mr. Jones’s turn of fortune might not have been possible before the modern era, where the plastic MetroCards, along with E-ZPass and surveillance cameras, have become ubiquitous.

Critics have said that the devices, for all their convenience, have ushered in an era of Big Brother, but they have nonetheless become useful in legal proceedings, whether to prove or undermine an alibi, find a missing person or even track a cheating spouse.

The MetroCard, used when boarding New York City buses and entering subway stations, has a magnetic strip that records the amount of money or time left on the card. Centralized computers also store data on where and when the cards are used, retrieving the information from buses and subway turnstiles.

The transit agency said that it receives requests from time to time to trace card information from the police, prosecutors and defense lawyers, but that it does not follow up on how those cases turn out.

In at least one instance, a MetroCard helped lead to a conviction. In 2002, on Staten Island, a man was found guilty of murdering his ex-girlfriend after the police used his MetroCard to prove that he was not on a bus when the killing occurred, as he claimed, but had in fact boarded it shortly afterward.

James B. Dowd, a retired detective working for Jason Jones’s lawyers, found Mr. Jones’s MetroCard in jailhouse storage. Librado Romero/The New York Times

“Electronic evidence has become almost as important as DNA evidence,” said James B. Dowd, the retired detective who recovered the MetroCard from jailhouse storage.

The Jones brothers were arrested after a witness identified them as being involved in the murder of a man shortly after midnight on May 24, at Ogden Avenue and West 165th Street in the High Bridge section of the Bronx.

The witness, who has not been identified, said Corey Jones was arguing with the man and accused him of being a “snitch.” A short time later, the witness said, Corey handed Jason a gun, and Jason fired shots, killing the man. A call to 911 was made at 12:21 a.m., records show.

The Jones brothers already had a spotted past. Corey had convictions in two drug cases, Jason in a drug case and for stealing a car.

But both brothers have denied any involvement in the shooting, and Jason Jones said in an interview that when he was taken for questioning, he made it clear to the police that he could not have been involved.

“I told them they had the wrong person,” he said. “I was not there.”

During the interrogation, he said, it occurred to him that he had used his MetroCard on the bus and the subway, and he asked the police to check it. A detective took the card briefly, and then gave it back to him, and there was no further discussion about the card, he said.

The MetroCard came up again when Mr. Jones’s own lawyers debriefed him.

“Jason, from the outset, had a very good memory of where he had been,” George R. Goltzer, one of his lawyers, recalled.

The lawyers asked Mr. Dowd, the private investigator, to check out Jason Jones’s story.

Mr. Dowd drove to a manufacturing plant in Yonkers, where Mr. Jones had a temporary job as a forklift operator. A printout of his hours showed that on May 23, the night of the killing, he had punched out at 11:01 p.m.

Mr. Jones had said that he and several co-workers then boarded a No. 20 Bee-Line bus near Central Park Avenue and Tuckahoe Road and rode into the Bronx, where they stopped at a check-cashing outlet, Pay-O-Matic, near Montefiore Medical Center.

When Mr. Dowd visited Pay-O-Matic, he learned not only that it had a copy of Mr. Jones’s check, but that it took photographs of customers.

“Everything was time stamped,” Mr. Dowd recalled. A photograph shows Mr. Jones cashing his check at 11:39 p.m.

Mr. Dowd said Pay-O-Matic also had a photo of one of Mr. Jones’s co-workers cashing a check, in which Mr. Jones was visible in the background. That further corroborated his story that he had had been with his co-workers that night.

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But Mr. Dowd still needed one more piece of evidence — the MetroCard.

Mr. Jones said that after cashing the check, he and his co-workers had walked to a friend’s apartment for a drink, and that he had then entered the 205th Street station on the D Line, less than a mile from the check-cashing outlet and about five miles from the shooting scene. He rode the train to 182nd Street to visit his girlfriend, he said, stayed with her until about 2 a.m., and then took a subway home.

After the investigator retrieved the MetroCard from the jail, Frederick H. Cohn, Mr. Jones’s other lawyer, called New York City Transit and asked to have the card’s history traced. “I said, ‘Well, how long is this going to take?’ ” Mr. Cohn recalled.

He said the employee said it would take three months. “She said, ‘We’re very busy. We’ve got all these requests.’ ”

Mr. Cohn said he pleaded: “We’ve got a guy who’s sitting in jail, and this is critical evidence.”

The request came back within days. Using the serial number of Mr. Jones’s seven-day unlimited MetroCard, the transit agency was able to report that Mr. Jones’s card had been used three times that night — on the No. 20 bus (the Bee-Line, the Westchester County bus system, accepts MetroCards) at 11:12 p.m.; at the 205th Street station at 12:30 a.m.; and at the 182nd-183rd Street station at 2 a.m. — all as he had said.

Mr. Jones’s lawyers say it would have been physically impossible for him to commit the crime and be where his MetroCard was used. They say the card was in his possession the whole time.

Once presented with the new information, prosecutors agreed that Mr. Jones could be released on bond.

But they objected strenuously when lawyers for his brother made a similar request. The prosecutors said that their witness might have been wrong about Jason, but had correctly identified Corey.

The judge, Victor Marrero of Federal District Court in Manhattan, earlier had refused to grant bail to Corey Jones, even after several witnesses said he had been with them at the time of the shooting. But, in a hearing last month, Judge Marrero suggested the new information could not be ignored.

“It seems somewhat implausible,” he said, that the government’s witness saw the event and was “right about one and mistaken about the other.”

The judge granted Corey Jones bail. Prosecutors have not dropped the charges, and said in court last month that their investigation was continuing. They declined to comment about the case outside court.

In his ruling, Judge Marrero paraphrased a saying about change by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. The judge wrote: “The river now flowing by is not the same river that passed by yesterday.”