Antoine Jones has been in federal custody since late 2005, when the authorities picked him up on charges that he participated in a large-scale cocaine distribution ring in the Washington metropolitan area.
In the seven-plus years since his arrest, Jones has dealt with his share of lawyers—from his first two trials to the appellate level to the U.S. Supreme Court. Last January, the high court, in a landmark decision, concluded that his conviction and life sentence couldn't stand based on police violations of his Fourth Amendment rights.
Today, dressed in a dark suit—and flashing a grin that never really disappeared—Jones set out on his own to convince a jury in Washington's federal trial court that the charges against him are bogus. Jones, who faces life in prison, is representing himself at this, his third trial.
Delivering his opening statement this morning, Jones, in front of the jurors, ripped up a copy of the charging documents. "This is what we're going to do with the indictment," he said, tearing the paper into sections and setting the pieces on a table in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle.
Jones began his opening with a long silence, perhaps a sign of his nerves or a moment of reflection about the significance of his next steps. After a few seconds, his first words were all about how he didn’t really know what to say.
Jones soon found his groove, however, raising and lowering his voice for effect and using hand gestures to stress key points.
"I'm fighting for my life," Jones said early in his twenty-five minute opening statement.
In his remarks, Jones didn't delve too deep into his past, instead giving jurors just basic details of his life. Jones was a businessman, for instance. He told jurors he used to run a nightclub in Washington.
The overarching point Jones made in his opening: the government, in its lengthy investigation—hour after hour of recorded phone calls, video surveillance and cell phone tracking—never caught him with cocaine.
Jones is charged with conspiracy. Prosecutors, of course, don't have to put any $20,000 brick of powder cocaine directly in Jones's hands. The government's task: convince jurors that Jones agreed with others to participate in unlawful activity.
"He didn't get his hands dirty," an assistant U.S. attorney, Courtney Spivey Urschel, said on Friday during the government's opening remarks. "He didn't have to."
Urschel portrayed Jones as a high-ranking middle man of sorts, receiving large shipments of cocaine from Mexico and reselling the drugs to customers in D.C. Jones, according to the government, wasn't standing on a street corner with small bags of coke.
Jurors will get a chance to hear from an array of government witnesses—from FBI special agents to cooperating informants. And the panel will get to hear Jones in his own voice—on wiretaps.
Urschel told the jurors that Jones, knowing the authorities could be listening to him, spoke in code when it came to any talk about cocaine and drug money. For example: "ticket" and "music" for cocaine, and "homework" for cash.
Sometimes, prosecutors said, the person on the other end of the line didn't immediately understand what was being discussed. "There's something about talking in a coded language," Urschel said in court. "It's hard."
Jones today disputed that he used any coded language in his phone conversations. He likened the government's misunderstanding of the words to a father not having a clue what his young son is talking about.
One of the issues in the Jones case, for the prosecution, is linking him to a house in suburban Maryland where the authorities found hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and cocaine in 2005.
The government, during the second prosecution of Jones, relied heavily on the use of GPS data to link Jones to that house. The authorities had earlier secretly installed a tracking device on a vehicle Jones was using.
But the Supreme Court last year invalidated the use of that information, concluding the installation of the device violated Jones's rights under the Fourth Amendment. Urschel, the prosecutor, didn't mention GPS data in her opening statement.
Instead, she briefly noted that the government will use cell tower data--location information when a person makes or receives a call--to connect Jones with the alleged drug stash house. Jones only made a passing reference today to the tower data, calling it "inaccurate."
Jones urged jurors to keep an open mind about whether government witnesses are telling the truth. "Put your lie detector on," he said at several different moments in his opening statement.
As Jones returned to his seat after his opening, he was still smiling. He grabbed a spot next to his standby counsel, Jeffrey O'Toole, who had been representing Jones up until recently.
The government, moments later, called its first witness.