It all came down to a missing knife. When it was found, the case against the Darien banker charged with felony assault and bigotry changed course dramatically. Stamford Superior Court dropped all charges against William Bryan Jennings, who, after a cab ride from Manhattan to Darien went awry over a fare argument, stabbed the cab driver’s hand before fleeing into the dark December night.
Police never knew who it was until Jennings came forward two weeks after incident.
Since that time, competing facts have hovered over the case, and press reports from around the world have weighed in on what some media outlets have billed as a rich, white Wall Street banker versus a poor, Egyptian cab driver.
To some, the decision not to move forward with the trial exacerbated that notion.
Steven Weiss, supervisory assistant state’s attorney, based his decision to not prosecute the case on a single incident – the cab driver, Mohammed Ammar of Queens, NY, had Jennings’ knife for months before giving it to police in May.
“He didn’t tell anybody he had the knife,” Weiss said. “We didn’t learn until May he had held evidence for five months His explanation for why he did this was no better than Mr. Jennings’” reason for not coming to police soon after the incident happened.
Police never searched Ammar for the knife as he was the alleged victim, according to Darien Police Capt. Fred Komm.
“The knife belonged to Jennings and not to Ammar,” Komm said. “The cab was thoroughly searched by officers, but the knife could not be located. Ammar was asked about the knife, and he claimed that he did not know what happened to it.”
But it wouldn’t have mattered if they had searched Ammar because he didn’t find the knife until much later, according to Ammar’s lawyer, Hassan Ahmad, who added that Ammar didn’t immediately hand over the evidence because he was scared and unfamiliar with the judicial system.
“He didn’t try to conceal or hide anything,” Ahmad told The Darien Times. “He came forward and told Mr. Weiss about it. Any delay in telling Mr. Weiss doesn’t change the facts of this case.”
Ahmad said if the knife were the real reason the case was dropped it should have been dropped months ago. He said his law firm has been in constant communication with the prosecutor’s office since Jennings’ arrest and was never given any indication that the prosecutor was considering dismissing the charges. As of late September, Weiss told him they were going to trial, according to Ahmad.
Weiss could not be reached for comment. After the knife was recovered, Gene Riccio, Jennings’ lawyer, filed a Franks motion to dismiss the case based on what Riccio claimed was sloppy police work. Judge Kenneth Povodator denied the motion, saying that whatever factual omissions Riccio claimed were the fault of Darien Police “are factual assertions in [Riccio's] motions, without any evidentiary anchors,” meaning Riccio filled in the blanks.
“Determining materially and whether a fact has been omitted or distorted cannot be done in a vacuum,” Povodator wrote. Riccio had to prove that police were intentionally or recklessly engaged in omissions or errors that are material or substantial for a Franks violations to be found. Povodator did not find that. Even if he had, a Franks violation is not sufficient for a case to be dropped, according to a decision in State v. Bergin.
The court had earlier denied Riccio’s first motion to dismiss in March, but this was before the knife surfaced. With the knife in hand, the second motion was also dismissed, calling into question Weiss’s rationale that the case shouldn’t be tried because Ammar withheld the knife, according to Ahmad.
“He’s using this as an excuse” to drop the case, Ahmad said. “Really, it’s disingenuous.”
Three days prior to the trial, media reports flooded the Internet claiming the prosecution was not going to pursue the charges. No official comment from Weiss’s office was made, but the speculation rose from the Ahmad, who circulated a press release on Friday claiming the charges would be dropped.
Ahmad said Ammar, was “outraged” by the decision and “continues to demand justice.”
“He was anxiously awaiting trial this month and had no indication that the Prosecutor would take such a drastic turn nearly a year after this crime was committed and within days of the trial,” Ahmad said in a statement. “Not only do we feel that it represents a miscarriage of justice for our client, but the timing of this decision makes it that much more disappointing and alarming.”
But Ahmad’s riling technique did not change the prosecution’s mind, despite public outcry against the decision to drop the charges.
The outcry has only grown. Muneer Awad, executive director of the New York branch of the Center for American-Islamic Relations, has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to look into charging Jennings with a hate crime in federal court.
“We just don’t think the prosecutor’s excuse is genuine,” Awad said. “The facts were there in February and the facts were there in May. The facts still exist.”
Ahmad said he has also asked federal prosecutors to examine the case. The justice department declined to comment on whether it was looking into the matter.
Jeffrey Meyer, a law professor at Quinnipiac and Yale law schools, told The Times that it’s “very unlikely” federal courts will pick up the case.
“It might be a possibility, but it’s still very rare for the federal government to second guess the decisions at the state level,” Meyer said, adding that those cases are often “highly charged police misconduct cases, when there’s been a real miscarriage of justice.”
Ahmad argued this case is the perfect example of a miscarriage of justice.
At the day of the trial, Weiss told the court that Darien Police had initially asked his office whether they should pursue charges against Ammar and Jennings, as Ammar admitted to having taken Jennings from his home, which constituted unlawful restraint, Weiss said. The police were told to only charge Jennings.
“What has happened since then changes everything dramatically,” Weiss told the court. Although this dramatic course change lasted for five months, as it wasn’t until the trial date that Weiss decided to drop the case.
As Ammar parked at Jennings’ Knollwood Lane home, the two men began bickering over the fare. Ammar, unable to get cell phone reception, left the scene with the door open and Jennings still inside to find police to settle the dispute. Jennings, fearing he was being abducted, according to his testimony, drew a knife, cutting Ammar’s hand, although it’s unclear whether the cut was intentional. Ammar stopped, and Jennings bolted through the park to his home.
Police arrived and took Ammar’s statement. He couldn’t recall where Jennings lived, so police had little to go on. He later got six stitches to treat the cut on his right hand. The knife, however, was not recovered until Ammar came forward in May, five months after the incident. Ahmad claimed Ammar didn’t find the knife until several weeks after, and gave it to Weiss upon their first meeting.
Weiss added that if police asked him now whether to charge both men, he said he would.
“We believe there is no public interest in pursuing charges against Mr. Jennings or Mr. Ammar,” Weiss said. “I’m not going to try the case.”
Weiss noted that this matter was better left to the civil courts to decide, despite the appearance that laws were broken on both sides. Jennings was also charged with larceny for not paying the fare. This charge was also dropped. Ahmad said his client has yet to be compensated the $204 for the ride.
Jennings displayed no visible emotion when it was learned he was released of the charges. After the trial and a brief consult with Riccio, Jennings addressed the press.
“I don’t have a lot to say,” Jennings began. “The outcome of the case speaks for itself.”
Jennings also said he had “a long list of friends and family” that got him through the ordeal. “I want to thank them,” he said.
Riccio lamented the press’s knee-jerk judgment of Jennings.
“It’s unfortunate when someone of prominence is arrested and the public and press jump to conclusions,” he said, adding that the next time an accused person faces trial, “maybe judgment will be held” until all facts are in.
When asked if he was still living in Darien and if he still works at Morgan Stanley, Jennings declined to comment. Riccio declined to comment if he would pursue civil charges against the police or Ammar.
Ahmad said his client “is examining all legal options,” including a civil suit against Jennings.