Carrying that Weight
Before leading his firm’s independent investigation into the Freddie Gray killing, Jason Downs shattered superior court success-rate averages as a public defender in D.C.
Published in 2020 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine on December 17, 2019
When he was 8, Jason Downs and a friend were cutting through an apartment complex on their way to school when the cops stopped and frisked them.
“There was a report of a theft,” Downs says. “We hadn’t stolen anything. We were terrified of the police and we realized how much power they had over our lives. It was scary to be that young and be patted down by a grown man with a gun.”
Today, the Baltimore attorney, who also maintains a D.C. office, and who was part of the team that repped the family of Freddie Gray, often finds himself at the center of high-tension civil rights cases. He knows what they can feel like from the inside.
Growing up in and around Baltimore, “I saw both sides of the coin,” he says. Without a ton of resources, Downs’ family moved around a lot. His mom worked full-time and enrolled in night classes to pursue a degree. He remembers bleak neighborhoods and a dearth of opportunity. He remembers the tension between his neighbors and the police.
By the time Downs was ready for high school, his mom moved his family out to more affluent Howard County, where he found access to opportunities that were rare in Baltimore City.
Inspired by his mom’s work ethic, Downs pushed himself academically, eventually landing at the University of Baltimore, where he graduated magna cum laude. At the University of Maryland School of Law, he was inducted into the Order of Barristers and helped deliver a national championship for the school’s trial team.
Once in the pros, Downs established himself as a fierce but charismatic lawyer at D.C.’s Public Defender Service. It came with a 10-week training onramp. “I could soak up everything from criminal procedure, constitutional law and trial technique, all before even trying a case,” he says. It also came with federal funding and a reasonable caseload, Downs notes, which allowed him to hone his investigative and interpersonal skills on a case-by-case basis.
As lead counsel on 26 felony jury trials, he piled up a success rate that clocked in at 282 percent higher than the Superior Court average. By the time he turned 30, Downs had climbed to the rank of training director, making him one of the youngest lawyers in PDS history to serve in that role.
“I wish I could say that I was more ambitious than others, that I was more prepared,” he says. “I was not. I was just very fortunate to make it into a system that was not overburdened, and I had a support system around me. It was a mechanism for success.”
Even with the support, the work was still taxing. “It was not easy handling only the most serious cases,” he said. “That’s just a hard thing to do, day in and day out.”
Some cases still haunt him—like the time he fought robbery charges for a juvenile in a bench trial. The complaining witness withered under Downs’ cross-examination. “It was going very, very well. I had exposed a number of inconsistencies to her story,” Downs says. “The witness became so panicked, she threw up her hands and left the witness stand.” The case should have been over but it wasn’t. “The judge was known for being very tough. And my client went to jail. I don’t know that I ever cried so hard.”
Watching teenagers being tried and sentenced as adults—sometimes despite his best efforts—was a constant, heavy weight on Downs. And while the PDS served as a valuable proving ground, Downs knew he wanted to branch out.
Downs found his way to Baltimore’s Murphy, Falcon & Murphy, and the tutelage of the legendary civil rights attorney Billy Murphy. Downs oversaw contentious and often heartbreaking cases involving police brutality, hate crimes and unlawful arrests. By the time Freddie Gray died in April 2015, “the community was fed up,” he says. Downs led the firm’s independent investigation into the case, while the city and the nation watched.
The experience inspired Downs to forge his own firm with Tiffani Collins in 2017. They’re equipped to take on cases that spark national narratives—like that of Terrence Sterling, who, unarmed, was shot and killed by a D.C. police officer after a traffic infraction. After nearly a year of litigation stemming from a wrongful death suit filed in D.C. Superior Court, Downs helped negotiate a historic $3.5 million settlement from the District of Columbia, more than three times the previous record.
“You can’t represent the family without really knowing what they’re going through,” Downs says. “In a very real way, their pain becomes a part of you.”