By Therese Apel
Jackson, Miss. (Reuters) - A Mississippi grand jury on Monday declined to indict a white police officer involved in the Aug. 2014 death of a black man put in a headlock, finding that drug use was a factor in his death.
Jonathan Sanders, 39, died during a struggle with a police officer after he was pulled over while driving a horse drawn buggy in Stonewall, Mississippi, a rural town near the Alabama border.
Officer Kevin Herrington found cocaine on him, and Sanders ran and then swallowed the sandwich bag with the drugs in it, according to Stonewall Police Chief Mike Street.
During an ensuing struggle, the officer put the horse trainer in a headlock, Street said. Sanders was unarmed, but that was unclear to the officer at the time, he said.
The grand jury report concluded that medical evidence indicated cocaine ingestion was most likely a contributing factor in Sanders' death.
The cause of death, according to the medical examiner’s testimony, was “mechanical asphyxia associated with acute cocaine toxicity.”
The decision comes as law enforcement agencies nationally face protests and scrutiny over their deadly use of force, particularly against unarmed black men.
In an unusual move, Mississippi District Attorney Bilbo Mitchell allowed the grand jury to question every witness, as well as Sanders' mother.
"I think that showed great transparency," Street said. "They got to see all the evidence."
The findings of the grand jury, which heard testimony and deliberated for two days, will be turned over to the FBI for review, Street said.
The grand jury was composed of six black and 10 white residents. While the vote tally was not released, at least 12 members had to be in agreement to make the decision not to indict, said Clarke County Circuit Clerk Beth Jordan.
The grand jury also found that Herrington had a reasonable suspicion to believe that Sanders was involved in drug activity.
Sanders served time in prison previously on a drug charge and was out on bond for a second. If he were charged with the cocaine possession and found guilty in both cases, he could have been sentenced as a habitual offender, which in Mississippi means he would spend life in prison.
Attorneys for the Sanders family did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
(Editing by Letitia Stein and Andrew Hay)