College graduate killed by police draws controversy

Rodney Mitchell was a 23 year old Florida man whose family affectionately called him “Hot Rod.”  He earned the name both for his good looks and his “unending appreciation of life, children, and those who loved him..”  According to the Herald Tribune, he “added great joy to the world.”  He had earned a full scholarship at East New Mexico University (ENMU), where he completed a degree in physical education.  Mitchell had won acclaim as an athletic football player capable of doing full somersaults in the end zone to celebrate a good play.  After graduation, Mitchell returned to Bradenton to work.  Tragically, in June 2012, Mitchell was shot a killed by two Sarasota County Sheriff’s deputies during a routine traffic stop for allegedly not wearing a seat belt.

Many were shocked by the news and could not believe that Mitchell was dead.  ENMU professor and academic adviser to Mitchell, Mary Drabbs, says, “It took me 24 hours to accept that he wasn’t alive.  He was such a live wire, always bouncing around and happy.  It’s awful for us.”

Mitchell’s family echoes the same sentiments.  Mitchell’s mother, Natasha Clemons, spend the time just after hearing the news of her son’s death believing that it was just all a dream.  In addition to many family and friends, Mitchell also left behind a son, who was four years old at the time of his murder.

Deputies involved in the shooting claim that Mitchell drove his SUV into one of them which prompted the shooting.  Mitchell had been returning from a family gathering in Newtown.  Mitchell’s cousin, a passenger in the vehicle reportedly fled on foot.  Regarding him leaving the scene, Daphney Branham, an attorney for the family reports that, “Law enforcement officers fired four bullets into a vehicle in which he was in.  Those bullets could have struck him, and he could have been killed.  So, I only can imagine the shock he was in at that particular time.  His only mission was to go and get help.”

Branham also states, “In the end, we are certain that (their) actions were not justified.  They used excessive force when it was not necessary under those circumstances.”  The case inflamed racial tensions in the town with many questioning officer’s motives. This was due in large part to the fact that Deputy Adam Shaw had a history of being suspended for not following protocol during booking and also being put on a 90 day improvement plan after a series of complaints were made regarding his traffic stops.  The complaints included five people who reported that Shaw had targeted certain drivers for seat belt violations when their seat belts were securely fastened.

An independent investigation by the State Attorney’s Office concluded that the two deputies involved in Mitchell’s death were justified in using deadly force.  The final decision was made by state attorney Earl Mooreland after reviewing the law as well as information gathered by investigations conducted by the Sheriff’s Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Florida Highway Patrol, the Medical Examiner’s Office, and Independent Crime Scene Analyst and Certified Force Science Analyst Alexander Jason.

The investigations found that Mitchell was driving on a suspended license due to a DUI conviction.  Mitchell’s cousin Dorian Gilmer reported that Mitchell objected to being pulled over because he had his seat belt on.  Officer Shaw reported that Mitchell was not wearing his seat belt.  Gilmer stated that as Mitchell took his hands off the gear shift and steering wheel,  Officer Sasse stopped approaching the vehicle, began backing away, and drew his weapon.  As Shaw began scuffling with Mitchell, Sasse fired two rounds at the vehicle within a half a second from each other.  The second bullet went through the driver’s window, struck Mitchell in his raised arm, and then lodged in his head.  Shaw then drew his weapon and also fired two shots.

While deputies report that the Jeep was being driven toward Sasse, Gilmer reported that Mitchell had turned the Jeep away from Sasse.  Sasse was found to have superficial wounds around his right eye and nose, and authorities claim that the injuries were due to blowback from pieces of glass and lead shards from the bullets he fired.  Forensics show that the Jeep was driving away from the deputies when Sasse fired his second shot, but investigators state that Sasse was unaware that Mitchell had turned away from officers as he accelerated away.

Mitchell’s family believes the officers involved bear responsibility for the unjustified murder, and a civil rights lawsuit was filed earlier this month against Sheriff Tom Knight and the two deputies involved.  The suit is alleging that Sheriff Knight implemented unconstitutional policies that contributed to Mitchell’s death.  The suit also alleges that deputies used excessive force and specifically cites Sheriff’s Department policies as a contributing factor.  The 66 page lawsuit also accuses deputies of conducting an illegal traffic stop, which is a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Attorney in the case Vana Renejuste made a statement to ABC 7 Black Almanac host Dr. Ed James saying, “This is nothing but a complete cover up and it appears to be a conspiracy.”  A crime scene investigator hired by Renejuste and other attorneys uncovered multiple inconsistencies between officers’ actions and the internal investigation conducted by the Sheriff’s office.

Expert in Crime Scene Investigations, Ken Williams states, “There is a situation, where as we discussed before, if you admit facts your outcome is going to be different.  And in the case of the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office they have omitted certain facts, they have omitted testimony, and it has tainted the outcome in my belief.  I’m able to analogize it and see things that are criminal, unreasonable, and don’t make sense.  It leads one to believe what the heck is going on in Florida?”

The following video is a clip from ABC 7’s show Black Almanac that reviews Ken Williams,  expert analysis of the shooting.  Watch below to find out what else Williams had to say along with Attorney Sannestine Fortine and Attorney Vana Renejuste.


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