Lawsuit over 2013 police shooting of Charlotte man goes to jury

Spencer Mims III, who had a history of mental illness, was killed on his porch during a 2013 confrontation with two police officers.
Spencer Mims III, who had a history of mental illness, was killed on his porch during a 2013 confrontation with two police officers.

When they began deliberations Monday afternoon, the 12 jurors in the wrongful-death lawsuit arising from the 2013 fatal police shooting of Spencer Mims III began debating over who played the biggest role in the killing.

Was it Mims, the 55-year-old Charlotte man with a history of mental problems?

Or the police officers who arrived at Mims' home that night to help him?

Both sides were depicted in conflicting ways throughout the week-long trial.

Attorneys for Mims' described the dead man as a loving son and uncle who was triggered into a fatal 2013 confrontation with police on the front porch of his southwest Charlotte home by the negligence of officers Jeremy Donaldson and Michael Whitlock.

Defense attorneys say Mims had a violent streak. On the night of his death, they said, Mims compounded his lifelong psychological struggles by getting drunk, ignoring direct orders from police, then approaching one of the officers with a deadly weapon that he refused to put down.

Donaldson, who became a Charlotte-Mecklenburg officer less than a year before the shooting, fired the fatal shots. He and the City of Charlotte were named as defendants in the lawsuit.

In their last remarks before the jury left the courtroom, family attorneys Luke Largess and Cheyenne Chambers told the members that the mistakes by Donaldson and Whitlock made Mims' death almost inevitable.

Given that Mims was experiencing a psychotic episode, the officers violated CMPD training by cornering him and unsuccessfully using a Taser to subdue him, Largess said. In a particularly strong comment, the attorney said Donaldson used his failure "to follow basic police protocols as an excuse" to kill Mims.

Defense attorney Lori Keeton, on the other hand, said the officers acted reasonably throughout the quickly changing conditions of the late-night encounter. Less than eight minutes elapsed between the police arrival and the gunshots. Keeton said the episode mutated from a routine call to a matter of life and death within seconds.

"Jeremy Donaldson was called to the scene that night. Nobody else was able to help," she said. "Everything he did ... was in the attempt to save Spencer Mims. What happened was a tragedy, but it wasn't the fault of Jeremy Donaldson."

Spencer Mims openings_03 (1).JPG
CMPD Officer Jeremy Donaldson listens during opening arguments in the lawsuit against him and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police for the shooting death of Spencer Mims III. On Monday, the jury began deliberating whether any negligence on Donaldson's part contributed to Mims' death.

The trial in a sixth-floor Mecklenburg courtroom drew few spectators. But it took the national debate over police use of deadly force to a place it rarely goes — a middle class home in southwest Charlotte. Mims' death also brought renewed scrutiny to how officers respond to the mentally ill, who account for half of the country's fatal police shootings each year.

On the night of his death, according to testimony, Mims had grown despondent over the playoff loss of his favorite NFL team. His father, longtime Myers Park High School orchestra teacher Spencer Mims Jr., testified that he left the house he shared with his son in hopes the younger Mims would calm down. Two hours later, the father arranged to meet with police outside the home so he could get some clothes to spend the night elsewhere.

Police found the younger Mims sitting on the darkened porch with a box-cutter to his own throat. When Donaldson told him to drop the blade, Mims asked the officer to kill him instead, the officer said.

According to testimony, the encounter quickly spun out of control when Donaldson approached Mims on the porch while Whitlock, in the front yard, jockeyed for a clear shot with his Taser. When Whitlock fired, one prong hit Mims in the right elbow while the other slammed into the house, testimony showed. Thus, Mims was not shocked.

Donaldson, who rushed Mims in an attempt to handcuff him after Whitlock's shot, told the jury he retreated when he realized the tasing had not worked. He backed into a corner on the other side of the porch, pulling his weapon and ordered Mims to stop. He said he opened fire when Mims kept coming with the box-cutter held aloft.

The defense told the jury that police botched the confrontation from the start. Largess portrayed Whitlock's decision to fire his Taser as more a byproduct of the officer's impatience rather than an effort to keep Donaldson from harming himself. Once Donaldson backed himself into the corner, Largess said, the officer panicked and felt he had to pull his gun to protect himself.

Based on the wounds found on the body, Mims was turning away from the officer when Donald pulled the trigger, Largess said.

"The question is, 'Why did he shoot him?' He was maybe eight feet away. He had a box-cutter, but what was he going to do, throw it at him? ... (Donaldson) shot because he put himself in a corner," Largess said.

On Friday, the efforts by both sides to frame who Mims was focused on the testimony of Dr. Andrew Farah, chief of psychiatry for the High Point Division of UNC Healthcare. He told the jury that Mims suffered from a form of bipolar disorder and also seemed to be in a paranoid state by the time police arrived at his home.

Those conditions were heightened by alcohol, Farah said. Mims' autopsy report says his blood-alcohol level was .13. Farah also said Mims had a history of abusing his behavioral medication, which could also have contributed to his state of mind.

Was Mims a danger to himself and others that night? Keeton asked.

"Absolutely," Farah said. "It was a perfect storm ... The psychosis and illness combined with the alcohol made this individual sadly unreasonable. He was beyond the reach of reason."

"There were no magic words," Farah said. "The illness had taken over."

Did Donaldson act appropriately? Keeton asked.

"I would not have done it any differently," the psychiatrist said.

During Largess' cross-examination, Farah acknowledged that Mims led a mostly stable life, with a degree from UNC Chapel Hill and 25 years in the same job. Farah also agreed that Mims had been calm before the officers began to move in and Mims was struck by the Taser prong.

If a person is in a mental crisis, would it be calming or agitating if a police officer, as Donaldson had done, had gotten within six feet and shined a flashlight in the person's eyes? Largess asked.

"I suppose it would not have a calming effect," Farah said.

Largess continued: What if that person were struck in the arm by a Taser? "That would not be calming," Farah replied.

Largess also asked if any patients in crisis had been shot and killed at Farah's hospital.

No, Farah said. "None of the training involves weapons."

"Right," Largess said.

In her final remarks of the trial, Keeton told the jurors that if they believe Donaldson acted reasonably, they could not find him negligent. She described Mims' death as tragic, but said her client's intervention may have saved other lives.

"This is very personal," she said. "Jeremy Donaldson's professional reputation and integrity are being called into question by this lawsuit."

Given a chance to respond, Largess bristled.

Who suffered more? he asked the jury. The officer? The man he killed? Or the father who had to watch his son fall?

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095; @MikeGordonOBS