In the span of 16 months, Zhafir Tinsley-Jones went from an unassuming Chester teenager to an accused murderer and back.
At 13, he was arrested in the shooting death of a 79-year-old grandfather who was felled by a bullet while driving his grandson to a relative’s house.
Now, prosecutors say they made a mistake in charging Tinsley-Jones and have withdrawn the first-degree murder charge they lodged against him. His lawyer, who always called the arrest a case of mistaken identity, said that was a just outcome, even as he decried the year the teen spent in jail awaiting trial.
But the family of the victim, Robert Lee Womack, is devastated.
Womack’s longtime partner, JoeAnn Luck, had taken some solace in believing that the person who killed the man she loved would face justice, even if the global pandemic had delayed the start of the trial.
News that the accused killer had been set free shook her to her core, she said, leaving her with frequent anxiety attacks.
“I thought I had some motivation to keep going, as long as I knew there was going to be a trial. Now there’s nothing, and I don’t know what to do,” said Luck, 64. “I’m still trying as hard as I can, and my daughter and son keep telling me to keep on going, because that’s what Lee would want.”
Womack was killed Jan. 29, 2020, as he drove his grandson to the boy’s mother’s house in his Chevrolet Impala, according to police. His grandson later told investigators that as they drove through Chester, a group of teens saw him riding in the back seat and opened fire on the car, according to court documents.
Womack, a retired Boeing tool grinder, was struck in the back of the head and died a short time later. Two witnesses identified Tinsley-Jones as the shooter, and he was arrested days later.
But the charges were quietly withdrawn last month. First Assistant District Attorney Tanner Rouse said a review of the evidence in the case led prosecutors to doubt that Tinsley-Jones had pulled the trigger.
He did not specify what gave prosecutors pause and noted that the investigation into Womack’s killing remains active.
“As with every case this office handles, our detectives and prosecutors have been dogged in pursuit of the truth,” Rouse said. “We are mindful that our duty as prosecutors is to see that justice is done and — in this particular instance, justice was served by withdrawing the charges at this time.”
Tinsley-Jones’ attorney, William Davis, said the news came as a surprise to him. And since the case never progressed past the initial stages, he never learned what evidence prosecutors planned to use against his client.
He said he believed there may have been issues with the witnesses — Tinsley-Jones swore from the very beginning that he wasn’t present at the time of the shooting, and that his arrest was a case of mistaken identity.
“He was doubly punished: He didn’t do it, and he had to sit in adult jail for a year,” Davis said. “Still, he’s a remarkable kid. He doesn’t seem too bitter, and has been able to move on with his life.”
Luck has been struggling to move on. Next week would have been Womack’s 81st birthday, and she plans to mark the occasion by releasing balloons in his memory.
“I’m just hurt,” she said. “But I’m also hopeful that somebody will come out and say what they’ve seen or what they know, to give us some kind of closure.”