A series of mistakes by panicked police led to a Charlotte man's death, lawyer says

A series of mistakes by panicked police led to a Charlotte man's death, lawyer says
Mims' family attorney Luke Largess addresses the jury during opening arguments in the lawsuit against Charlotte-Mecklenburg police and the City of Charlotte in the shooting death of Spencer Mims III. (David T. Foster III | Charlotte Observer)
Mims' family attorney Luke Largess addresses the jury during opening arguments in the lawsuit against Charlotte-Mecklenburg police and the City of Charlotte in the shooting death of Spencer Mims III. (David T. Foster III | Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Michael Gordon/The Charlotte Observer) - Police recklessness or wanton abuse did not kill Spencer Mims III on the porch of his Charlotte home, an attorney for his family told a Mecklenburg County jury on Tuesday morning.

Instead, he said, it was a series of "basic mistakes" in how panicked officers responded to a mentally ill person in an unfolding crisis.

"Everything happened so fast," Charlotte attorney Luke Largess said in his opening statement of the trial of a wrongful death lawsuit tied to the shooting death of Mims in January 2013. "The errors weren't abusive. But they were mistakes. Those mistakes took a life, a life that was part of a family that loved someone."

After about a nine-minute, late-night standoff on the porch of the home Mims shared with his father, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Jeremy Donaldson shot and killed Mims as his father watched.

Donaldson in previous statements to police, said he opened fire after Mims, 55, turned toward him with a box-cutter in his hand and threatened his safety.

"All he did was turn towards me with the knife in his right hand," Donaldson told CMPD investigators. "So I backed up... I said 'Drop the knife or I'll f-----g kill you.' And by this time I was almost on the other side of the porch that was closed off. So there was nowhere to go. I fired two rounds. He continued to come towards me. I fired one more round."

Both Donaldson and fellow officer Michael Whitlock were cleared of any wrongdoing by CMPD and the Mecklenburg County District Attorney's Office.

Mims' family filed a wrong-death lawsuit against Donaldson, CMPD and the City of Charlotte, saying the officer broke from his training and worsened the situation.

Mims' sister lives in Raleigh.

In his opening statement to the jury hearing the lawsuit, Largess said Mims was trapped on the front porch by the approaching officers and was turning away from Donaldson when he fired his weapon.

He said Donaldson rushed to handcuff Mims though Whitlock's effort to taser Mims had failed. He then allowed himself to be backed into a corner in violation of his training in dealing with a mentally ill person.

So panicked was the young officer during the confrontation that three years would pass before Donaldson realized he had shot Mims in the back, Largess said.

Mims suffered from lifelong depression and anxiety disorder but had maintained a mostly stable life. He had a degree from UNC Chapel Hill and held the same job for 25 years.

But on the night of Jan. 6, 2013, Mims became uncharacteristically angry as he watched Washington, his favorite team, blow a 14-0 lead and lose to Seattle in the NFL playoffs. He threw a pizza box, slammed a door and cursed his father — something that he'd never done before, the father said in a deposition.

Mims Jr., 87, who taught orchestra classes at Myers Park High School for 34 years, left the house hoping his son would cool off. While driving around, he saw an unidentified police officer and asked them for help. The officer told Mims Jr. he would call someone who would meet him at his home.

Court documents show the standoff with officers was brief. Here's what happened, according to police reports and deposition testimony.

Police arrived around 11 p.m. to the house on Cooper Drive near South Boulevard. Mims Jr. asked them to help him get some clothes so he could leave the house for the evening and give his son room to calm down.

After talking briefly to the father, Officer Donaldson walked to the small porch, where Mims was sitting with his back against the house. Donaldson told him to drop the box-cutter, which he was holding against his neck.

A second officer, Whitlock, called a sergeant from the scene to tell him he planned to use a Taser to subdue Mims. The sergeant responded to Whitlock: "Do what you gotta do," according to a police report.

Whitlock fired the Taser as Donaldson moved toward Mims, ready to handcuff him after the Taser hit. But one barb hit Mims in the right elbow and the other struck the house, rendering the Taser shot ineffective, according to depositions.

Mims howled in pain and raised his right arm.

Donaldson shot Mims three times. He told investigators he feared his life was in danger.

"I mean he would have at least tried to stab me with his knife or cut me in, in the face area," he said. "Cause if he would have hit me in my artery in my neck.... or you know underneath my arm.. I could have bled out in a manner of minutes."

Police departments across the nation, including CMPD, train officers who face potentially dangerous encounters with mentally disabled people to, when possible, keep a safe distance, speak slowly and calmly and buy time to gain the person's cooperation without the use of force. Some law enforcement experts recommend officers avoid over-reliance on weapons, including Tasers.