JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A grand jury in Mississippi declined to indict a white police officer in the death of a black man, saying the man died of asphyxiation after ingesting too much cocaine and that the officer did not use excessive force.
Stonewall officer Kevin Herrington stopped Jonathan Sanders, who was riding a horse and buggy, in July. The circumstances surrounding Sanders' death were unclear at the time, prompting protests and allegations of police brutality in the small eastern Mississippi town.
Herrington had "reasonable suspicion to believe Jonathan Sanders was involved in drug activity," according to the grand jury report released Monday. The report said Sanders died of asphyxiation associated with "acute cocaine toxicity," based on reports and testimony from the medical examiner. The cocaine caused bleeding in Sanders' neck, which in turn caused problems with breathing and blood flow that caused his death.
The report also said there was no evidence the officer used racial slurs during the confrontation, which came as the nation wrestled with the high-profile deaths of black men in police custody.
Sanders had been dealing cocaine when he was stopped and swallowed the drugs, causing his death, said Stonewall Police Chief Michael Street. Herrington found a plastic bag of cocaine on Sanders while patting him down, and Sanders then snatched the bag and swallowed it, Street said. At that point, he said, the two men struggled.
"Some of the myths that were out there have been debunked by the grand jury," Street said. "It cuts down a lot of this conspiracy theory that the police were trying to hide something."
However, an attorney for the Sanders family, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, called the grand jury's decision "a miscarriage of justice" and said there had been "inconsistencies throughout the investigation process."
"We don't stop here," he said. "We will be presenting our case to the world."
Lumumba and others have said Sanders made his living buying, selling and training horses. Sanders had served time in prison for selling cocaine and was arrested for cocaine possession in 2015. Authorities had also been seeking the forfeiture of a vehicle and cash after that arrest.
Lumumba said the family would conduct its own investigation into Sanders' death and push for a federal probe. Street said the FBI would review the state's investigation into Sanders' death.
FBI agent Jason Pack, spokesman for the bureau in Mississippi, said Monday: "We will work with the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Section and the United States attorney's office to review the facts and sworn testimony in this case to see if there is evidence of a federal civil rights violation."
Street said the district attorney treated this case differently and had the grand jury hear directly from witnesses. He said the grand jury did not rely on police reports but rather did its own work.
"They got it first hand," he said. "They had the opportunity to seek the truth themselves."
Herrington's attorney, Bill Ready Jr., said the report vindicated his client.
"I've been saying all along that Officer Herrington did nothing wrong," he said.
Herrington was a reserve police officer in Stonewall and was put on administrative leave during the grand jury investigation, Ready said. As of Monday, Herrington had not returned to the part-time job as an officer.
Herrington may not return because of threats made against him and his family, Street said.
"He's been under a lot of emotional pressure and strain regarding this very unfortunate incident," Ready said. "He is very relieved that the grand jury has found that he did nothing wrong in the encounter with Mr. Sanders."
The decision to not indict Herrington did not sit well with some people in Stonewall.
Carol Doby, a 58-year-old certified nurse's assistant who is a close friend of the Sanders family, said she remains convinced Sanders did nothing wrong, noting that witnesses had previously come forward saying the officer choked Sanders, who did not resist.
She also was suspicious about why Herrington chose to confront Sanders that night with his wife in his police vehicle and chose not to call in backup officers. The grand jury determined Herrington did not violate department policy by having his wife in the vehicle, but it urged the board of aldermen to reconsider this practice.
"You just get disgusted," Doby said. "It's like the '60s. They can do just about what they want to do and get away with it."
Burdeau reported from New Orleans.