A police officer told a Mecklenburg County jury Tuesday that he saw light reflect off the raised silver box-cutter in the hands of Spencer Mims III seconds before he shot and killed him.
In what he described as his haste to put distance between himself and Mims five years ago, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Jeremy Donaldson testified that he backed himself into a corner on the front porch of Mims' home on Cooper Drive in Charlotte. He said he pulled his gun as he backpedaled, passing the stairs leading to the front lawn. He says he then ordered Mims to drop the blade.
Luke Largess, the Charlotte attorney who filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the officer and the City of Charlotte for the dead man's family, asked Donaldson why he had not used the stairs to avoid the confrontation with the angry Mims, who had a lifelong history of mental problems and had the box-cutter at his throat when police arrived.
"I didn't have time to go down the stairs because Spencer was following me with a knife," Donaldson replied.
"You backed up to the other side of the porch, which was a dead end street, right?" Largess said.
"Correct," Donaldson said. "... When I fired at Spencer, he was coming at me with a knife."
If that were true, Largess asked, why did one of the bullets strike Mims in the back, while another hit him in the side?
Under questioning, Donaldson acknowledged that he did not learn of the location of Mims' wounds until several years after the shooting.
The courtroom exchange, which lasted about an hour, served as a dramatic opening in the Mims family's lawsuit, which was filed against the officer and the City of Charlotte after Mims died on Jan. 6, 2013. Mims' sister lives in Raleigh.
The trial is expected to shed critical light on how Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police deal with the mentally ill, who account for about half of all fatal police shootings nationwide each year.
In his opening remarks to jurors, Largess said Mims' death was the result of a series of small but significant errors by a panicked Donaldson, who had about a year of experience with CMPD when he answered the late-night call to Cooper Drive.
"The errors weren't abusive. But they were mistakes," Largess said. "Those mistakes took a life, a life that was part of a family that loved someone."
Both Donaldson and fellow officer Michael Whitlock were cleared of any wrongdoing by CMPD and the Mecklenburg County District Attorney's Office.
Largess, however, said the officers escalated the nine-minute confrontation by too quickly approaching Mims, who was in the midst of a psychological crisis, then firing an errant Taser shot that enraged Mims but failed to control him.
Mims, 55, suffered from lifelong depression and anxiety disorder but maintained a mostly stable life. He had a degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and held the same job for 25 years.
His godson, David Poetzsch, told the jury that his "Uncle Ace" loved movies, taught him baseball and would take him on road trips. Poetzsch, a former UNC Charlotte graduate student who coaches and teaches at South Alamance High School, testified that he knew Mims had psychological problems, which occasionally kept him from taking part in family activities.
On the night of Mims' death, Poetzsch was supposed to join Mims to watch an NFL playoff game involving Washington, Mims' favorite team. Poetzsch said he called to cancel an hour before kickoff.
Mims became uncharacteristically angry as he watched Washington blow a 14-0 lead and lose to Seattle. 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.
The elder Mims, 87, who taught orchestra at Myers Park High School for 34 years, left the house hoping his son would cool off. He later arranged to have police at the house when he stopped by to pick up some clothes to spend the night elsewhere.
Donaldson and Whitlock arrived around 11 p.m. Donaldson talked to the elder Mims. He told the jury Tuesday that the father told him that his son had "some mental issues" and that police had removed two guns from the house at an earlier date.
In the middle of the conversation, the younger Mims' voice rang out. "I can hear what y'all are talking about." Mims was sitting on the porch, his back to the house, the box-cutter at his throat.
Under questioning from Largess, Donaldson said he walked up to Mims and shined a flashlight on his face. Mims turned away. The officer said Mims' demeanor worsened when he told him repeatedly to put the box-cutter down. Eventually, Mims got to his feet.
When Whitlock fired his Taser, one of the prongs struck Mims in the right elbow. The other buried in the side of the house.
Donaldson said he rushed in to handcuff Mims. It was at that instance, he told the jury, that he first learned the Taser had not worked. He backed up, he said, and reached for his gun.
A CMPD training manual teaches officers to wait for signs that the electric charge from a Taser shot is working before rushing to handcuff the subject during a five-second window.
You didn't you wait, Largess told Donaldson.
"It was dark. I can't wait when it's dark," he said.
He said when he touched Mims' body, he knew the Taser shot had failed.
He said he pushed away from Mims, but Mims followed.