‘Build better cases:’ No evidence to convict teen arrested in fatal shooting outside Jones High School, Worrell says

Witness gave disjointed testimony, couldn’t ID subject in photo lineup, state attorney says

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – A 17-year-old boy who Orlando police arrested in the fallout of a fatal shooting last November outside a Jones High School football game will not be charged and is no longer a suspect in the victim’s death, according to Orange-Osceola State Attorney Monique Worrell, who added at a news conference Wednesday that law enforcement officers should strive to operate above community pressure.

“I know that sometimes, when a horrific event takes place, there’s community pressure to bring an offender to justice, there’s community pressure to help the community to feel safe again, so they (law enforcement agencies) may rush to make an arrest in order to accomplish that outcome, sometimes they make arrests because they believe that an arrest is necessary to protect the safety of the community, and these are valid reasons for them to move forward. However, when law enforcement stands in front of the media and touts an arrest and compares that arrest to convictions, it puts the onus on my office to follow through and get a conviction, and unfortunately, in too many instances to recount today, the evidence needed to support an arrest is not strong enough to merit a conviction,” Worrell said. “Under my administration, this office will not operate on a ‘throw it against the wall to see what sticks’ mentality. We respect the rule of law. We understand what it takes to move a case from probable cause to reasonable doubt and we will not ignore the facts where they are lacking.”

This comes months after Gamaine Patrick Brown, a 19-year-old who previously graduated from Jones High School, was shot and killed and two others were injured in the parking lot outside the campus as Jones High was hosting a playoff game against Wekiva High School.

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According to officers, there had been an argument in the parking lot between two groups of people when Brown was shot. Police said the shooting was gang-related but would not name the gangs involved.

In the update Wednesday, Worrell described a witness who provided the “only evidence” in the case, a 15-year-old girl involved with the group opposing the company whom Brown was with at the time. Worrell said the girl was contradictory and untruthful at varying points in her description of events.

Given that the shooter was wearing a mask, law enforcement would have had to work with descriptions of their clothing, Worrell said. Not only did the witness’ description of the alleged shooter’s clothing not match what was worn by Jeremiah Cundiff — the 17-year-old boy in question, arrested at his home in December — but the witness also identified the shooter by a nickname different than what Cundiff was known as. A day after Cundiff was arrested, the witness was unable to identify him in a photographic lineup, Worrell said.

When the witness was asked about another individual in their group who may have possessed and used a firearm that evening, Worrell said the girl was untruthful in her testimony. Additionally, while the witness said that Brown was leaning against a car and using his phone when he was shot, another witness who was with Brown at the time said that he was running when he was struck, Worrell added. The state attorney’s office on March 10 filed a no-petition notice against Cundiff, stating the case against him was not suitable for prosecution.

“As a result of these facts and inconsistencies, my office was unable to proceed with charges against the individual who was arrested in this case. As I said repeatedly over the last several months, law enforcement has a burden of probable cause when they make an arrest. That is, that the individual who they’ve arrested probably committed the crime that they have arrested them for committing. When that case comes over to this office, we have an ethical burden of being able to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Worrell said.

On the subject of Elijah Ayrow, a 15-year-old who was arrested along with Cundiff, Worrell said Wednesday that she could not comment on the juvenile case. Cundiff had faced a second-degree murder charge while the 15-year-old currently faces a charge of attempted second-degree murder, records show.

Orlando Police Chief Eric Smith released a statement following Worrell’s announcement previewing Wednesday’s news conference. You can read the full statement below.

Worrell was asked to react to Smith’s statement, stating she disagreed with it and did not want to get into the details, adding her office would open in April to provide training sessions for all law enforcement officers within her jurisdiction to “build better cases.”

“Our goal is to work collaboratively with our law enforcement partners for the safety of our community. To the men and women on the front lines, the prosecutors, the deputies and the officers, you don’t deserve to have your work scrutinized and publicly criticized in the way that has become the new normal,” Worrell said. “...They have been caught in the crossfire of disagreements between agency heads and it’s not fair to them and it’s not fair to our community. I want all of you to know that you have my unwavering support and I will do everything that I can so that our offices can work collaboratively for the safety of our community.”

Worrell also briefly referenced the ongoing tiff between her and Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has targeted Worrell’s office over a string of fatal shootings in February that took the lives of 9-year-old T’Yonna Major, 38-year-old Nathacha Augustin and 24-year-old Dylan Lyons. Worrell said the governor has been engaging in “political fearmongering” to get her suspended because she’s a Democrat, likening his actions to the suspension of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren last year.

“Unfortunately, there’s lately been a whisper campaign building — whether or not it’s related to the governor or not is irrelevant — there have been a lot of stories coming out that my administration doesn’t prosecute cases. That’s just not true. So I think that it’s necessary for me to come out as often as I can to let the community know: ‘Here’s a case we’re not prosecuting (and) here’s why,’ because it’s one thing to say we’re dropping cases, but the ‘why’ is important as well,” Worrell said.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office responded to the conference, providing the following statement:

Sheriff Mina did receive notice of the training that the State Attorney mentioned in her news conference – via email, about an hour before the news conference.

The State Attorney failed to mention the training with the State Attorney’s Office at OCSO that has been ongoing since 2020. In 2020, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office invited the State Attorney’s Office to take part in our annual block training. That training — which convened weekly through an entire calendar year — took place between 2020 and 2022, over two State Attorney administrations.

The purpose of that training — at our invitation and urging — was for the State Attorney’s Office to provide information, from its perspective, directly to our deputies, about how to build the best possible cases for prosecution. Over that time, attorneys from the SAO were able to reach every single deputy in our agency.

Orange County Sheriff's Office statement (excerpt)

Deputies also noted that investigators and attorneys from the State Attorney’s Office typically communicate and collaborate to build cases for prosecution, adding that prosecutors often give their “stamp of approval” before detectives secure arrest warrants.

The sheriff’s office criticized Worrell’s message on law enforcement’s role in making arrests.

“To suggest that the Sheriff, or our deputies or detectives would disregard our legal obligations and make arrests to satisfy community pressure is preposterous — and reckless,” the sheriff’s office stated. “The State Attorney lamented that when law enforcement makes an arrest, it ‘puts the onus’ on her office to get a conviction. That is true. Law enforcement does its job, which is to develop probable cause and make arrests. And the role of the State Attorney’s Office is to prosecute cases.”

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About the Authors:

Brandon, a UCF grad, joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021. Before joining News 6, Brandon worked at WDBO.

Anthony, a graduate of the University of Florida, joined ClickOrlando.com in April 2022.