The second of two men charged in the shooting death of a 14-year-old Minneapolis girl outside a birthday party last June was freed Wednesday just hours before the opening of his trial.

Ken Dillard, 17, walked out of jail when prosecutors dismissed charges he murdered Charez Jones, saying they had been surprised by new testimony from a potential defense witness.

When Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance wouldn't give them until Monday to investigate the witness who suggested someone else might have fired the fatal shot, prosecutors abandoned the trial and preserved the possibility of filing new charges against Dillard later.

Dillard, a member of the Tre Tre Crips gang, was accused of shooting Jones by accident as he fired at rival Taliban gangsters.

Holding someone accountable for the killing has been difficult, frustrating prosecutors, police, neighbors and family members.

Charges were dropped last fall against the other defendant, Willie Cortez Buckingham.

Prosecutors and a judge had become embroiled in a dispute over the police interrogation of Buckingham, who was accused of being an accomplice after the fact in the shooting.

Guy Jones, the father of Charez, was disappointed that Dillard was freed.

"I respect the judge. I think she was doing a marvelous job, but I think being human, there were some errors made," Jones said. "She said herself we need to know the truth."

Dillard's return to the community also is a concern to Mike Martin, inspector of the city's Fourth Precinct, which covers the North Side. "Any time someone is released that we believe was involved in a violent act, we're concerned," he said.

Another shooter?

Jury selection had begun Monday, and nine jurors had already been selected for Dillard's second-degree murder trial.

On Tuesday, prosecutors said they got word from the defense about a "new witness" for Dillard who pointed the finger at someone else as the shooter. Quaintance allowed them half a day Wednesday to investigate and a full day Friday, but she wanted the trial to proceed Thursday with testimony from other witnesses and reconvene April 25.

Deputy Hennepin County Attorney Pat Diamond said prosecutors were left with no choice but to ask that the charges be dismissed without prejudice, meaning they could be refiled.

Diamond said it was "too soon to say" if that will happen.

"We're not happy with it, but it's what we have to do to responsibly handle this case," Diamond said.

He said prosecutors were upset with the late revelations from a witness because the defense is required to produce such information in a timely manner.

Judge has a different version

Quaintance, however, gave a different account in a two-page order Wednesday. She faulted the defense for not releasing interviews until months after they were conducted. But she said all of the witnesses were previously interviewed by and known to the prosecution. She noted that the defense did not intend to use an "alibi defense" or call the witnesses at issue.

She said prosecutors knew about some of the interviews because they were discussed in monitored phone calls from jail. In addition to the alibi witness, defense reports showed several witnesses had recanted testimony against Dillard.

Defense lawyers Carol Batsell-Benner and Angela Bailey did not return calls seeking comment.

Rivalry has escalated

The gang rivalry has escalated since Charez Jones was shot, Martin said.

"We are concerned not only that people might retaliate against [Dillard] but may use this an opportunity to retaliate against people who cooperated against him," Martin said. "It's an unfortunate situation that a dangerous person is now back on the street.''

Martin said officers work to identify gang members who could become involved in retaliation and will reach out to their probation officers to make sure release conditions are being met. Some of these gang members are in school, so officers will also talk to school officials to prevent violence from flowing into their buildings, he said.

Martin was in a meeting with 30 gang investigators from the Twin Cities discussing North Side gangs when he learned about Dillard's release.

Lt. Amelia Huffman, head of the homicide unit, said investigators will continue to work with the county attorneys. "A case like the Charez Jones murder is one that affects the city very deeply," she said. "The investigators who have worked and continue to work the case feel very passionately about seeing justice done for Charez and her family."

Ron Edwards, a member of the Police Community Relations Council, had been working with Charez's family since the shooting. He was scheduled to testify in her trial and wants to see Dillard in custody. He will be writing a letter on behalf of the family asking County Attorney Mike Freeman to appeal the judge's ruling.

"I don't feel like getting a call at 2 a.m. that a kid is laying dead in an alley," he said.

The writers are at raolson@startribune.com • 612-673-1747 and dchanen@startribune.com • 612-673-4465.