In the coming days, jurors in Montgomery County will contend with a tortuous question: What drove Keenan Jones to fire a gun at complete strangers inside a crowded Walmart in August 2018, wounding five of them?
During opening statements at his trial in connection with that shooting, prosecutors said Wednesday that Jones, 31, displayed a “cold-blooded attempt to kill," a violent outburst that started when he shot a man standing next to him in the checkout line for simply making eye contact with him.
Jones’ attorney, Vanessa L. Bellino, disputed that characterization, saying Jones is not the “monster" prosecutors are painting him to be. She described the Philadelphia resident’s behavior as a “psychotic episode” fueled both by stress surrounding his girlfriend’s troubled pregnancy and years of trauma.
Assistant District Attorney Roderick Fancher rejected the defense lawyer’s suggestion that Jones is not guilty by reason of insanity, calling it “a concocted defense that doesn’t hold water.”
“From the moment this defendant fired that first shot, he’s been trying to evade responsibility," Fancher told jurors. "He’s been trying to run from his actions.”
Fancher noted that Jones fled the scene with his sister — the legal owner of the gun used in the shooting — and stopped nearby to “calmly, deliberately” discard the firearm before crashing the car into a nearby Philadelphia police vehicle.
Video surveillance from inside the store captured the entire ordeal, and showed that Jones ultimately fired seven shots from the handgun, including a barrage of four at a store employee he passed as he fled. One of those bullets sliced open an artery in her ankle, and she lost “massive amounts of blood,” according to Fancher.
“The victims in this case aren’t asking for sympathy; they’re asking for justice," Fancher said. "And after this trial concludes, there will be mountains of evidence to support that conclusion.”
Bellino said Jones doesn’t deny the victims’ injuries, or that he caused them. Instead, she contended that Jones had no idea what he was doing.
“There is nothing rational about that act, and there is no reason to shoot" the man in the checkout line, Bellino said, calling Jones’ behavior “erratic and irrational.”
Instead, Bellino said that years of undiagnosed and untreated post-traumatic stress triggered paranoia in Jones.
“He thought someone would shoot him that day,” Bellino said. “He really thought that. That’s the reason, as unreasonable and crazy as it was.”
The weeks leading up to the shooting were difficult for Jones, she said. His girlfriend had given birth the morning of the incident after 36 hours in labor and an emergency C-section. Months before that, Jones witnessed the killing of a childhood friend in an eerie similarity to a scene from his childhood: At 16, Jones’ father was killed in front of him in a neighborhood dispute.
Bellino told jurors they will hear from medical professionals who examined Jones and concluded that his actions were consistent with a sudden psychotic episode.
Those experts, along with witnesses and victims, will testify in the trial, expected to last through Friday.