Expert: Police acted reasonably in shooting mentally ill man; family attorney scoffs

Spencer Mims III, 55, died in January 2013 after a deadly confrontation with Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers. An expert witness who testified in a lawsuit filed after the shooting said Thursday that officers acted reasonably.
Spencer Mims III, 55, died in January 2013 after a deadly confrontation with Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers. An expert witness who testified in a lawsuit filed after the shooting said Thursday that officers acted reasonably.

An expert on police training and lethal force told a Mecklenburg jury on Thursday that two police officers acted appropriately during a 2013 confrontation that led to the fatal shooting of a mentally ill Charlotte man.

The family of Spencer Mims III filed a wrongful-death lawsuit about the shooting.

Ken Wallentine, a special agent for the Utah attorney general and frequent expert witness, testified that the actions by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officers Jeremy Donaldson and Michael Whitlock were "what we expect from well-trained officers."

On Jan. 6, 2013, Donaldson shot and killed Mims on the porch of his southwest Charlotte home.

While Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police and the Mecklenburg District Attorney's Office have cleared Donaldson and Whitlock of any wrongdoing, the lawsuit by Mims' family contends that the officers violated their training and needlessly escalated the confrontation with Mims into a deadly showdown.

The complaint names Donaldson and the City of Charlotte as defendants.

On the third full day of testimony, Wallentine was the first witness to defend the police officers' tactics. His depiction of events drew a pounding cross-examination from the family's attorney, Luke Largess, who frequently objected to Wallentine's grasp of the evidence.

"You know it's not your job to establish the facts in this case, don't you?" Largess said at one point.

Mims' death came at the close of a night in which he had grown despondent following the playoff loss of his favorite football team. When police arrived at his home, he was sitting on his front porch with a box-cutter to his throat. He had also been drinking. According to defense attorneys, Mims' autopsy report listed his blood-alcohol level at .13.

Donaldson told the jury that he approached Mims and ordered him to put down the blade. According to testimony, Mims responded by telling the officer to shoot him. Whitlock eventually fired a Taser. One prong struck Mims in the right arm. Donaldson testified that he shot Mims three time as he approached him with the box-cutter still in his hand.

Spencer Mims openings_03.JPG
CMPD Officer Jeremy Donaldson, shown with defense attorney Lori Keeton, listens during opening arguments in the lawsuit against him and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police for the shooting death of Spencer Mims III. An expert defense witness said Thursday that Donaldson and fellow officer Michael Whitlock acted reasonably in their handling of the situation. David T. Foster/Observer

In his opening remarks to the jury, police attorney Mark Newbold described Mims' death as a tragedy. The use of deadly force by police, he said, leads to "an ugly, traumatic, heartbreaking result."

Mims may have been a loving son, uncle and godfather, Newbold said, but he was also seriously ill and had a violent side.

Given what they faced that night, the officers made reasonable choices, from Whitlock's use of his Taser to Donaldson's decision to pull his gun, Newbold said.

Wallentine agreed. He said neither officer had been overly aggressive in their dealings with Mims. He said they could not have stayed away from Mims to de-escalate the situation because they were dealing with an unstable man carrying a deadly weapon.

Wallentine, however, displayed a shaky grasp of the facts and the sequence of events. During his cross-examination, Largess seized on those errors and what Wallentine has been paid to testify. On several occasions Largess dismissed Wallentine as a "$7,000 expert witness" who had rarely testified in behalf of a civilian complaint against police and who did not seem to know best police practices in dealing with a mentally ill person in crisis.

Officers, Largess said, are taught not to escalate tensions in such encounters by acting aggressively. Mims, Largess said, had remained calm until Donaldson gave him repeated orders to drop the box-cutter and he spotted Whitlock angling to get a Taser shot.

Could those be considered aggressive? he asked.

Wallentine repeatedly acknowledged that they could.

Largess pressed on. He cited Donaldson's decision to back away from Mims, leaving himself trapped in the corner of the porch with no way to escape. Was that a breach of training? he asked.

"I agree it's not the best," Wallentine said.

As to the reason why, Largess supplied his own answer. "It leaves them faced with a choice to kill someone to protect themselves," he said.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095; @MikeGordonOBS