Public Safety

Grand jurors clear Cedar Rapids officer in traffic-stop shooting

Questions arise over why no statement obtained from driver who was injured

CEDAR RAPIDS — A grand jury looking into the Nov. 1 traffic-stop shooting of motorist Jerime Mitchell has decided — without obtaining a statement from Mitchell about the incident — not to recommend charges against Cedar Rapids Police Officer Lucas Jones, who fired his gun out of fear for his life, Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden announced Tuesday.

In a news conference, Vander Sanden disclosed for the first time since the shooting five weeks ago why Jones had stopped Mitchell’s truck about 1:15 a.m. on the lower part of Coe Road NE — that lights to illuminate the license plate were out — and why he became suspicious more was going on — that he smelled marijuana.

A physical altercation ensued when Mitchell refused to obey the officer, Vander Sanden said, leading the officer to believe his own life was in danger. A subsequent investigation found Mitchell had about a pound of marijuana, scales and $1,500 cash in the truck and appeared to be ready to make a drug deal before he was stopped, Vander Sanden said.

This marked the first time in at least a decade that a police-involved shooting went to a Linn County grand jury — rather than to the County Attorney alone — to determine whether charges were merited.

But despite the broader review, questions arose immediately about why Mitchell’s version of events was not heard. Some at the news conference repeatedly pressed Vander Sanden about why the black motorist’s statement was not gathered when the white officer’s statement was.

“Don’t you think it’s more important for due process to have postponed it?” Pastor Damian Epps of Mt. Zion Baptist Church asked.

Vander Sanden said Mitchell had “numerous” chances to give a statement to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, which reviews officer-involved shootings in the state. The DCI, he said, attempted to make a “multitude of contacts” with Mitchell.

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Vander Sanden said he gave the grand jury notice Nov. 17 it would be convened and that he wasn’t going to delay the hearing because Mitchell had been given “numerous” chances to be heard.

“We’re still open to interviewing him,” he said.

But Mitchell’s attorney, Paula Roby, said before the news conference she was blindsided to learn a grand jury already had decided.

Roby said she was scheduled to take Mitchell’s statement Dec. 13. He is paralyzed and undergoing care at a facility outside Iowa.

Mitchell was “adamant from the beginning” that he wanted to present a statement before police video from the scene was viewed.

“Unfortunately, he was unable to speak until recently,” Roby said.

Squad car dashboard camera video from the scene has not yet been released. The officer’s body microphone was “not operational,” Vander Sanden said, so there appears to be no independent record of the traffic stop conversation.

Vander Sanden declined to provide details of what evidence was presented to grand jurors, who were convened Monday, or whether Jones had testified.

However, Jones had been interviewed as part of the DCI investigation, and those findings were turned over to the county. The DCI report was not made public.

Vander Sanden also said the grand jury was free to subpoena witnesses, but never asked.

He said a statement from Mitchell or audio of the altercation wouldn’t have changed the grand jury outcome.

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“This would have all been avoided if Jerime Mitchell would have complied with Officer Jones,” he said.

At the news conference, Vander Sanden said the investigation determined:

l When Jones approached the truck, he smelled a “strong odor of marijuana.”

l According to Jones, Mitchell was uncooperative, asking “What the (expletive) do you want?” Jones told him his license plate lights were out and Mitchell responded with more expletives.

l Mitchell said he wanted to see for himself, but then locked the door. Jones ordered Mitchell to get out of the truck and to turn around and face the door.

l When Jones reached for his handcuffs, he could feel Mitchell tense up. Jones warned Mitchell he would release a police dog from his patrol car if Mitchell did not cooperate. Mitchell told him to go ahead and do it. Jones activated a button on his belt that released the dog.

l Jones and Mitchell had a struggle as Mitchell tried to get back in the truck. When he did, Jones had his left arm on Mitchell and was caught in between the open door and the truck as Mitchell reached to put the truck in gear. Jones said he told Mitchell to stop, but he accelerated instead.

l Jones said he “feared for his life” and fired three shots at Mitchell’s head with the intent to kill. One hit Mitchell in the neck, paralyzing him.

l Jones then broke free and fell backward.

Mitchell’s truck continued forward, at up to 60 mph, and struck a police sport utility vehicle and parked cars before stopping. The movement was likely due to Mitchell being incapacitated after being shot, Vander Sanden said.

Mitchell was unconscious and not breathing, and officers administered CPR before paramedics responded, Vander Sanden said.

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Mitchell, who had marijuana in his system at the time according to Vander Sanden, will not face charges.

Jones remains on paid administrative leave, Vander Sanden said. Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman, who was standing with Vander Sanden at the news conference, said the case remains under administrative review.

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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