Should ex-Marine face murder charge for killing his alleged attacker?

Posted: March 27, 2012

THE DAY was almost over for Jonathan Lowe, a man who had seen some rough patches in life.

But Oct. 1 had been pretty good for the retired Marine, who had recently survived several strokes and a heart attack that required him to wear a monitor.

Lowe, 57, spent the evening at a fish fry at a friend's North Philadelphia house and headed home after 10 p.m.

That simple journey, it turned out, led Lowe to what is likely the roughest patch he's ever known - and he never made it home.

Lowe was jumped by three men on Cecil B. Moore Avenue and Bouvier Street. One of them, Loren Manning Jr., 51, attacked him with a metal rod and knocked him down, Lowe would later tell his family.

Adrenaline took over, and Lowe fought back. He pulled a knife he carried for protection and plunged it into Manning, a career criminal who had been arrested nearly 40 times.

When it was over, Lowe was bleeding - the tip of one finger had been sliced off in the struggle - and Manning lay dying as blood seeped from his neck and chest.

Lowe waited for police at the scene with a small group of Temple University students and others who'd seen the scuffle. But Lowe was arrested, and he's been in a city jail since that night, awaiting a murder trial that's set for May 29.

As the nation grapples with the case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen who was shot dead because George Zimmerman thought he looked suspicious, Lowe's case provides a poignant local example of the quandary of justifiable self-defense.

Lowe's situation even has parallels to the case of Bernie Goetz, the bookish subway vigilante who became a cult hero in 1984, when he shot four young black men whom he thought were trying to rob him on a New York City subway. Goetz was eventually acquitted of attempted murder by a sympathetic jury.

Lowe's attorney, Samuel C. Stretton, hopes that the case doesn't get that far. He said that he plans to petition the District Attorney's Office to withdraw the charges before the trial because, he contends, the case is textbook self-defense.

"There's no question my client was the victim of a robbery," Stretton said. "He just got the better of the guy."

The 'Castle Doctrine'

When police arrived at the scene about 10:30 that night, Lowe stepped forward and said, "I did it," said police Officer Kristen Pazdan, who testified at Lowe's preliminary hearing.

"At which time the defendant stated to me that he had been robbed, and he looked down towards the ground towards a metal rod and stated that the victim, Mr. Loren [Manning], tried to hit him with it," testified Pazdan, who arrested Lowe on the spot.

Though the police count Manning's death among the city's 324 homicides last year, the case is far from the typical slaying because Lowe stayed to tell police what he had done and why. Prosecutors, in fact, often cite fleeing as a sign of guilt during homicide trials.

This case raises anew a fundamental law-and-order question: When does a person have the right to use deadly force in self-defense?

Though that right varies among the states, Gov. Corbett signed a law in June that revised the "Castle Doctrine," which gives an individual the right to use deadly force to protect himself in his home from death, kidnapping or serious bodily harm.

The new law expands the doctrine to include anywhere in which a person has a legal right to be and eliminates the person's duty to retreat before using deadly force. The revision is similar to the so-called stand-your-ground law in Florida that has kept authorities from arresting Zimmerman, so far, but it doesn't appear to have factored into Lowe's case.

Max Nacheman, executive director of CeaseFire Pa., said that someone such as Lowe - attacked by three men during a robbery - would have had the right to defend himself even before the Pennsylvania law was expanded.

Nacheman's gun-violence-prevention organization is concerned that the new law makes it too easy for people to shoot their neighbors.

"When you leave your home and you're in the public sphere, if you can avoid a deadly confrontation, that should be your requirement," Nacheman said.

Philadelphia D.A. spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson declined to discuss why the office decided to charge Lowe. In an email response to a list of Daily News questions, she said, "It would be inappropriate to talk about this case before the trial actually begins."

The disagreement over whether Lowe was justified to stab Manning played out in the city's Criminal Justice Center this winter.

After Municipal Judge Patrick Dugan heard from Stretton and Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore at Lowe's Jan. 31 preliminary hearing, he did something that is rarely done in this town: He dismissed the murder charge.

Dugan did hold Lowe for trial on the lesser counts of possession of an instrument of crime and voluntary manslaughter - provocation from the individual killed. He set bail at $75,000, but Lowe never got a chance to post bail.

Pescatore immediately refiled the murder charge, and, during a motion hearing a week later, Common Pleas Judge Benjamin Lerner reinstated the charge.

"I must say that, having read the notes myself, and notwithstanding the fact that I have a huge amount of respect for Judge Dugan, I don't understand his ruling in this case," Lerner said.

The prosecutor had established that Lowe used a deadly weapon on a vital part of Manning's body, Lerner reasoned, and whether he was justified would need to be decided by a trial jury or judge.

"We did a rearrest because we think it's a murder, and Judge Lerner agreed with us," Pescatore said during an interview. "It's a question for the jury."

Pescatore was not swayed by the defense argument that Manning's extensive criminal record - his nearly 40 arrests include two dismissed murder charges and 18 convictions for robbery and other crimes - lent weight to the defense argument.

"That's an argument the defense can make," she said. "He still didn't deserve to die."

Stretton said that Lowe waived his right to a jury trial; Lerner will preside over the trial.

A hard life

Stretton said that he's waiting to ask the D.A.'s Office to drop the charges until after he interviews the Temple students who witnessed the stabbing. He also is investigating the possibility that Manning robbed one of the witnesses earlier that day.

"Normally, there's always factual disputes, and everyone's client says that they are innocent," Stretton said. "But there are certain cases where the evidence sort of cries out for reconsideration, a relook at it."

Lowe's older sister, Anne Bryant, 65, certainly thinks so.

"He is innocent. He told me what happened, that the guys attacked him and he had to do what was necessary to help himself, because he is sick," Bryant, a cancer and lupus patient who looks forward to her brother's daily phone calls from jail, said after a court hearing earlier this month.

Lowe, a native of Germantown, has not had an easy life. After their mother died when they were young, Bryant said, she finished raising him, but the loss led him to drop out of high school.

He rallied to become a Marine, serving from 1976 until he was honorably discharged in 1982, Stretton said.

He fell into drugs, but had long since recovered, Bryant said. His children are grown.

He was living on disability the night he fought for his life and lost his freedom.

"Jonathan is not a bad person, never has been," Bryant said.


Contact Mensah M. Dean at 215-568-8278 or deanm@phillynews.com

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