|The state flag of Mississippi: Remind you of anything?|
It’s a tiny little memorial in the yard of an aging mobile home in a down-on-its-luck Mississippi mill town. Poster boards with votive candles form hearts, there are silk flowers and red, white and blue balloons. There’s a sign demanding “Justice 4 Jonathan.”
Here on Artesia Avenue is where Jonathan Sanders died after 10 p.m. on July 8, following a physical encounter with a white police officer for the town of Stonewall. What happened that night when Sanders — a 39-year-old black man riding in a two-wheel buggy pulled by a horse — crossed paths with Kevin Herrington — a 25-year-old part-time officer — is intensely disputed.
Lawyers for the Sanders family and witnesses who live in the mobile home say Herrington engaged in an unprovoked attack on Sanders after the two saw each other at a convenience store a mile across town. C.J. Lawrence, the lawyer for three witnesses, said Sanders was doing nothing illegal and didn’t resist while Herrington choked him to death.
A lawyer for Herrington, though, said the officer found Sanders with what appeared to be illegal drugs. Sanders and Herrington struggled in the grass and Sanders grabbed Herrington’s gun from his holster, only to drop it in the grass, attorney Bill Ready Jr. said.
Trying to sort out the facts are the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the FBI. Herrington is on unpaid leave and left town on a family trip, Ready said. Sanders’ survivors — including a mother, sister and two children — buried him Saturday.
Authorities are asking for calm while they finish investigating. But there were already two protests last weekend attended by hundreds in this town of 1,100 near the Alabama line.
Another protest is planned Sunday, as attorneys for Sanders’ family paint his death as part of a larger nationwide struggle over police brutality against black men, and they see it as part of the unfinished civil rights movement in Stonewall, a town named after Confederate general Stonewall Jackson.
Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the Sanders family lawyer, said authorities told relatives that an autopsy found he died from “manual asphyxiation” — strangulation. He said the manner of death was homicide, not accidental.
A spokesman for MBI said the agency doesn’t discuss ongoing investigations.
The autopsy finding doesn’t necessarily mean Herrington committed a crime and accounts so far leave unanswered questions: What triggered the encounter? Was Herrington using necessary force, or was Sanders the victim of an overly aggressive officer?
And at a time when police departments are under intense scrutiny for treatment of black suspects, did race play a factor?
Stonewall doesn’t have cameras in police cars or on officers, putting the focus on witnesses. Clarke County Sheriff Todd Kemp said one witness is Rachel Williams, a jail guard in neighboring Lauderdale County.
Lawrence, the witnesses’ attorney, won’t confirm her name, or describe the others, except to say they are related and also distantly related to Sanders by marriage. Lawrence said the witnesses sought lawyers because they fear for their safety. Lawrence is a law partner of Lumumba, the Sanders’ family attorney.
Also present at the time of the death were Herrington and his wife, Kasey Herrington, who was riding that night in his police car.
The lawyers for the witnesses relayed their accounts to The Associated Press but said they did not want to talk directly with reporters: The witnesses say Herrington drove up behind Sanders and flashed his blue lights, causing the horse to rear. Sanders fell off the buggy and chased the horse, while Herrington ran up and grabbed Sanders by the strap of a headlamp he was wearing that had fallen around his neck. They say Sanders fell to the ground in a fetal position, trying to relieve pressure on his neck but otherwise not resisting, while Herrington lay atop him and put him in a chokehold.
The attorneys said one witness went outside and pleaded with Herrington to release Sanders. He refused until his wife retrieved his gun. Then Herrington directed his wife to radio for backup. When Herrington finally released Sanders, witnesses say he was unconscious and that blood came out of his mouth.