Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

A teenage murder suspect, and his alleged victim’s family, have waited a year for the case to be heard due to COVID-19

An arrest in Robert Womack’s murder was made in 2020. A preliminary hearing hasn’t happened yet.

JoeAnn Luck in her home in Chester. Her fiancé, Robert Womack, was shot and killed in January 2020, but she is still waiting for the suspected killer's preliminary hearing.
JoeAnn Luck in her home in Chester. Her fiancé, Robert Womack, was shot and killed in January 2020, but she is still waiting for the suspected killer's preliminary hearing.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Robert Womack — “Lee” to his friends — never shied away from running an errand for family. That’s what put him on a Chester street in January of last year, driving his grandson to his mother’s house.

Womack, 79, never finished the trip: A teenage gunman with a grudge saw Womack’s grandson and another teen in the backseat and opened fire on the Chevrolet Impala, according to police. The intended targets emerged unscathed. But a stray bullet hit Womack as he sat in the driver’s seat.

The then 14-year-old who investigators say pulled the trigger, Zhafir Tinsley-Jones, was arrested soon after, and has been in the county jail ever since. Womack’s family, amid their grief, took some solace in knowing the alleged killer was off the streets.

But then the pandemic swept the globe. And the criminal case against Tinsley-Jones has been placed on hold. Other cases have been delayed by COVID-19, but most have at least gone through the introductory stage of a preliminary hearing, a proceeding at which a judge decides whether there is sufficient evidence for a case to go to trial.

» READ MORE: Teen charged with first-degree murder in this week’s shooting of 79-year-old Chester man

The first-degree murder case against Tinsley-Jones has now gone more than a year without such a hearing. Prosecutors and others in the criminal justice system say the delay is unusual — even at a time when the pandemic has slowed proceedings on the path toward justice..

For JoeAnn Luck, Womack’s longtime partner, the delay has only deepened her pain.

Memories of that night still haunt Luck. She lingers on the details of her final conversation with Womack, and his promise to come right back after dropping off their grandson so he could take her to a hairdresser appointment. She never saw him again.

Tinsley-Jones’ attorney, William Davis, said the Chester native has repeatedly professed his innocence and insists his arrest was a case of mistaken identity.

Womack’s grandson and his friend told police Tinsley-Jones was the shooter, according to the affidavit of probable cause for his arrest. They said he was standing with a group of other teens on the night of the shooting, pulled out a gun and fired.

Luck just wants to learn the truth about what happened on that winter day and why. Womack’s grandson hasn’t said much about the shooting. The 18-year-old still isn’t ready to talk about the incident, she said, but every so often he asks Luck to take him to Haven Memorial Cemetery, where Womack was buried last year.

“I understand him not wanting to talk, because when you’re a young boy, and you see something like that happen to one of your loved ones, that’s something you never forget,” Luck said.

Luck and Womack met in their native Virginia, but didn’t start dating until 1983, long after both their families relocated to Chester. They had been inseparable ever since, Luck said, and had especially treasured the last five years, after Womack retired from his decades-long career as a tool grinder at Boeing.

They spent their days driving and listening to music, cycling between country crooners like Blake Shelton and blues artists, of which Johnnie Taylor was their favorite, she said.

“He was just a hardworking man, a good man,” Luck said. “Every holiday, I write letters to him, like we’re still talking about our lives.”

» READ MORE: Boy, 14, sought in shooting death of 79-year-old man in Chester

Why the court case has been delayed so long is difficult to pinpoint. Delaware County has not held in-person preliminary hearings since February 2020, when President Judge Kevin Kelly issued an order suspending them. Instead, the hearings have been held virtually, over Zoom, in an attempt to limit the backlog at the district court level.

Initially, Tinsley-Jones’ attorney said his client was requesting an in-person hearing and opting out of a virtual appearance, according to court documents. But in a recent interview, Davis said the delay concerned him, and he was considering filing a motion to schedule a proceeding.

District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said county court administrators have taken an “intelligent approach” toward cases amid COVID. The decision to hold preliminary hearings virtually, though sometimes unpopular, was done in consultation with the Public Defenders’ Office and other stakeholders, he said.

“We all sat down and tried to determine anyone in jail who didn’t need to be there, and to try to find a way to dispose of their case,” Stollsteimer said. “Everything has been impacted, everything has been delayed, but it is what it is. We have to take into account everyone’s health and safety first.”

Elsewhere in the Philadelphia suburbs, the situation is largely the same, with the majority of preliminary hearings being held virtually, or in a hybrid fashion with some witnesses and lawyers present in the courtroom with a judge and others reporting in remotely.

» READ MORE: Justice delayed: Philly courts’ backlog leaves many jailed for months without a hearing

The city, by contrast, has accumulated a backlog of cases waiting for a preliminary hearing. While the Philadelphia courts have been holding hearings virtually, they have a much larger pending caseload than the surrounding counties.

Still, Tinsley-Jones’ case stands out for the length of time since his arrest, and for Luck, reminders of that delay are constant.

“Everybody that knows him will never forget him,” she said of Womack. “He will always be remembered as that kind gentle guy, and as long as I’m living I will never let anybody forget him.”