Family of Miss. police chokehold victim seeks indictment against officer

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Tony Webster/Flikr

By Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America / July 15, 2015

The family of an unarmed black man killed after allegedly being choked by a Stonewall, Mississippi, police officer last week is pushing for criminal charges, attorneys representing the family of Jonathan Sanders said Wednesday.

A rally is planned on Sunday in Stonewall to protest the death, the attorneys said, and will coincide with Sanders’ funeral.

“What we’ll do is we will seek justice and we’ll fight for justice because that’s what his mother and family wants, and that’s what we’re determined to get — for this episode and the entire phenomenon of black and unarmed lives being taken around the country without repercussions,” said C.J. Lawrence, an attorney representing Sanders’ family.

On July 8, Sanders — a horse-and-buggy driver — left his home around 10 p.m. to exercise his horse, said Chokwe A. Lumumba, another attorney representing Sanders’ family.

Before he left home, Sanders fixed a miner’s light to a wire band around his head so he could see in front of him, Lumumba said. Sanders rode his horse to a nearby store at a gas station. As he came out, he saw Stonewall Police Department Officer Kevin Harrington, who had pulled over a man in his car at the time, Lumumba said.

As Sanders left the station, he said to Harrington, “Why don’t you leave that man alone,” and took off, said Lumumba, who spoke to the man who was pulled over by Harrington and took a recorded witness statement from him.

The witness said once Harrington locked eyes on Sanders, he said he “wanted” him.

“He said, ‘I’m going to kill that nigger,’” the witness told Lumumba in his statement.

Harrington caught up to Sanders and detained him in front of the home of three additional witnesses, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, Lumumba said.

“When the blue lights come on Sanders’ horse rears up, knocking Sanders off the horse. He gets up to retrieve the horse, and Witness One says, unbeknownst to Sanders, Harrington comes from behind grabbing Sanders by his miner’s light which has now fallen from his head to his neck, and brought him down by his miner’s light,” Lumumba said.

Harrington then allegedly put Sanders in a chokehold. The officer had Sanders in a chokehold for about 20 minutes, the witnesses said.

After an ambulance arrived at the scene, EMTs attempted to save Sanders’ life, Lumumba said.

“Then they decide to sit him up, and when they do, blood rushes out of his mouth,” Lumumba said. “They laid him back down, and they were never able to get a pulse at the scene.”

While the official autopsy report has not been released, preliminary findings by the University of Mississippi Medical Center determined that Sanders’ death was caused by manual asphyxiation and that the type of death was a homicide, Lawrence said.

The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation said Tuesday that it was too soon to discuss how Sanders died. Local officials, however, told a community meeting in Stonewall on Tuesday that the autopsy was complete, and state officials and the FBI could hold a news conference in the coming days to address Sanders’ death.

“I assume there may be some who may be wondering why there hasn’t been an arrest,” Clarke County District Attorney Bilbo Mitchell said. “That’s because the investigation isn’t complete.”

Lawrence and Lumumba said they hope to secure an indictment against Harrington, and to ensure that the officer is tried for Sanders’ death. But they were concerned with statements by the district attorney that downplayed the chance of an indictment against the officer.

Although Mitchell said the case would be presented to a Clarke County grand jury, possibly as early as September, he underlined that in the roughly dozen grand jury cases involving death caused by law enforcement during his career as a district attorney, he couldn’t recall one officer being indicted.

Stonewall police Chief Michael Street said he has turned over the inquiry into Sanders’ death to the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, which is the usual procedure for cases involving killings by police in the state. To arrest Harrington under Mississippi law, Mitchell would have to demonstrate probable cause to a judge because Harrington is a government employee.

Sanders’ death is all too reminiscent of a series of police killings of unarmed black men across the country, Lawrence said. He called the killings an “epidemic.”

“This is an opportunity to take a stand on these issues and this phenomenon, especially because of all places that this could happen, it occurred in Stonewall, Mississippi, near a Confederate graveyard — the name of the town itself is the namesake of a Confederate general, and when you drive through town you can still see Confederate flags flying,” Lawrence said.

Around 500 people from Stonewall, a town of just over 1,000 inhabitants, rallied in support of Sanders’ family last Sunday, Lawrence said. Some rode horses through the streets.

Sanders, who was married and the father of two young children, will be buried on Sunday at 11 a.m. at the Family Life Center Church in Whitman, Mississippi, Lawrence said.

“Sanders’ mother wants justice for her son, the entire family wants justice and we intend to pursue that,” Lawrence said.

With wire services

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