Mississippi’s appeals court reversed the manslaughter conviction of a former Jackson police officer who pulled a man from his car and slammed him to the ground, citing insufficient evidence.
The ruling also rendered an acquittal.
“The State concedes error in this issue,” reads Tuesday’s majority opinion written by Chief Justice Donna Barnes of the Mississippi Court of Appeals. “After review, we likewise conclude that the evidence was insufficient to support the verdict.”
Justices Virginia Carlton, Jim Greenlee, Anthony Lawrence III and Joel Smith concurred and Justice Jack Wilson concurred in part. The remaining four justices dissented.
On Aug. 5, 2022, former detective Anthony Fox was found guilty of culpable-negligence manslaughter for the death of 62-year-old George Robinson. This came about two years after his indictment with two other officers for second degree murder. He received a 20-year prison sentence with 15 years suspended and five to serve, followed by five years probation.
In a Tuesday statement, Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens II said he is disappointed in the court’s decision but is thankful for its careful consideration of the case.
“The Hinds County District Attorney’s Office’s goal in each case is to seek justice,” he said in the statement. “… While we carefully review the Court’s decision and evaluate the appropriate path forward, our thoughts and prayers are with the family of George Robinson.”
The evening Jan. 13, 2019, Fox was searching for a suspect involved in the shooting death of a local pastor. Officers were in the area of Jones Avenue when they encountered Robinson, who was hosting a barbeque at his home to celebrate his recent recovery from a stroke.
Two people approached Robinson’s car to ask for change to buy food. Fox testified that he thought they were engaging in a drug sale. Officers asked Robinson to get out of the car, and the man told officers he couldn’t move very fast and was trying to take his seatbelt off, according to court records.
Fox opened the door, grabbed the man and threw him to the ground – hitting Robinson’s head and resulting in bleeding. Officers called an ambulance, but then canceled the request for service before a paramedic arrived, according to court records.
The officer cited Robinson for disobeying police commands and resisting arrest, and then let him go. Robinson drove to see his girlfriend and lay down on the bed, and she left him to go to the store.
About 15 minutes after she returned, Robinson started to shake and foam at the mouth, according to court records. An ambulance came and took him to the hospital where doctors found a brain bleed and performed surgery on his head.
Robinson died Jan. 15, 2019. The state medical examiner testified that his cause of death was a homicide from at least three blunt injuries to the head.
The Court of Appeals agreed with Fox’s argument that there was insufficient evidence for a culpable negligence verdict and that the Hinds County Circuit Court acted improperly when it didn’t instruct the jury about a defense of “accident and misfortune.”
Culpable negligence would need to be supported by evidence that the victim’s death was a foreseeable result of the defendant’s actions., the court wrote. Medical evidence did not support how eyewitnesses described what happened to Robinson, the court wrote, noting how medical experts testified that Robinson would have had more injuries.
Robinson’s medical history including a history of strokes, hypertension and blood thinner medication also make it difficult to pinpoint whether the injuries caused by Robinson were the sole contributor to his death, the court wrote.
Taken altogether, the Court of Appeals found the eyewitnesses’ testimonies not to be credible, so they can’t be the basis for Fox’s conviction.
“The evidence does not support a finding, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Fox should have known that Robinson’s death was a probable result that he should have reasonably anticipated,” the court wrote.
The ruling comes less than six months after the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office made a similar argument and asked the court to reverse Fox’s conviction, saying Fox could not have reasonably foreseen that Robinson would die from “an everyday effort to subdue a resisting, non-compliant suspect using traditional non-lethal means.”
In a Tuesday statement, Attorney General Lynn Fitch said a wrong has been righted and Fox received the acquittal he deserves. She reiterated her support for law enforcement.
In his dissent, Justice John Emfinger said there was legally sufficient evidence to support the verdict, and the court must question whether Fox’s actions against Robinson were reasonable, such as why he took him out of the car or allowed his head to hit the pavement.
“If Fox did not have a reasonable suspicion that Robinson was involved in illegal activity, he had no lawful right to remove him from his vehicle,” he wrote. “Thus, any force that he used would be unreasonable.”
Justices Latrice Westbook, Deborah McDonald and David Neil McCarty joined the opinion.
However, Emfinger wrote the jury wasn’t properly instructed in some respects. In that case, he would reverse the conviction and ask the court to hold a new trial with proper instructions.
In its statement, the Hinds County district attorney’s office said it followed the law and that the jurors were instructed on the law.
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