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Mississippi grand jury cites shoddy investigations by police department at center of mistrial

Aug 18, 2023, 12:56 PM

Brookhaven Police Department detective Vincent Fernando, looks around the Lincoln County courtroom ...

Brookhaven Police Department detective Vincent Fernando, looks around the Lincoln County courtroom while testifying Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, in Brookhaven, Miss., at the trial of two white men who are accused of chasing and shooting at a Black FedEx driver who had dropped off a package at a home. On Thursday, Aug. 18, 2023, the judge declared a mistrial in the case. (Hunter Cloud/The Daily Leader via AP)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(Hunter Cloud/The Daily Leader via AP)

BROOKHAVEN, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi grand jury issued a report last month sharply criticizing a police department whose errors prompted a mistrial this week in the case of two white men charged in an attack on a Black FedEx driver.

Officers in the Brookhaven Police Department “poorly investigate their cases,” according to a Lincoln County grand jury that considered more than 60 criminal cases. The department is “complacent,” “does not complete investigations in a timely manner,” shows a “lack of professionalism” and “has a habit of witness blaming,” the grand jury said.

The July 10 report came weeks before Judge David Strong cited police errors as his reason for declaring a mistrial Thursday in the case of Gregory Case and his son, Brandon Case, who are accused of shooting at and chasing FedEx employee D’Monterrio Gibson, who was delivering a package near their homes in January 2022.

Gibson, 25, was not injured in the attack. But the chase and gunfire led to complaints on social media of racism in Brookhaven, about an hour’s drive south of the state capital, Jackson.

Prosecutors said they intend to set a new trial for Gregory Case and Brandon Case, who remain out on bond. The men were indicted in November on charges of attempted first-degree murder, conspiracy and shooting into the vehicle driven by Gibson. A court official said it could be months before a new trial date is available.

Strong said he made the mistrial decision because of errors by a Brookhaven Police Department detective. On Wednesday, the judge ended court early after Detective Vincent Fernando acknowledged under oath while the jury was out of the courtroom that he had not previously given prosecutors or defense attorneys a videotaped statement police had taken from Gibson.

“The bottom line is, this file should have been turned over to the DA’s office prior to the indictment,” Strong told Fernando on Wednesday. “And lo and behold, here we are on the second day of the trial and we find out something that these attorneys have been looking for for at least a week and potentially months is actually in your file.”

By withholding the videotaped statement, a potentially critical element of the investigation, Fernando kept attorneys on both sides of the case in the dark.

“Do you understand how the system doesn’t work when that happens?” Strong probed.

“Yes, your honor,” Fernando replied.

The judge said Fernando also improperly testified about guns found in the home of one of the men on trial and shell casings found outside the home. Defense attorneys requested the mistrial, and Strong said he had no choice but to grant it.

Fernando had testified that he has 20 years of law enforcement experience, with the past three in Brookhaven.

The legal procedure for turning over important documents can be hampered by bureaucratic disconnect, said André de Gruy, the state public defender for Mississippi. De Gruy, who was not involved in the case, said in an interview Friday that local prosecutors all over the state have been slow to turn over files to defense attorneys.

“District attorneys all over the state tell us, ‘We’re having trouble getting files from the police department, so we can’t turn it over to you,’” de Gruy said.

Why Fernando didn’t turn over the file has vexed legal observers. If he testified that he had the videotaped statement, it would seem that he wasn’t trying to hide it; he just didn’t turn it over, de Gruy said.

Outside of potential consequences handed down by the police department, de Gruy said legal punishment for Fernando would be unlikely if he didn’t commit perjury, a crime for which he hasn’t been accused.

The grand jury — made up of local residents — did not name specific Brookhaven Police Department officers but wrote that “investigations are not completed after the original investigator leaves the department” and that the department “is arresting individuals without sufficient probable cause.”

The grand jury said the department has a “lack of accountability,” department employees gave conflicting statements of fact to the grand jury, the department does too little to train its employees and does not use technology to its advantage.

Brookhaven Police Chief Kenneth Collins did not answer the phone and did not immediately respond to voicemail messages Friday. When The Associated Press called the police department and asked for Fernando, an employee sent the call to the chief’s line.

Sharon London of Irondale, Alabama, attended the trial in Brookhaven this week, saying she wants justice for Gibson and his family because she believes her own family did not receive it after her 43-year-old sister, Bridget London Hall, was killed in Brookhaven in 2015. London said the police department never arrested anyone.

London said the Brookhaven Police Department has “a breakdown in their leadership.”

“They do not know how to investigate cases,” London said. “And that’s a problem. That’s a problem for D’Moneterrio. That’s a problem for me. And that’s a problem for all the citizens here in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and they should be upset about it. And I am.”

District Attorney Dee Bates was first elected in 2003 and did not run for office this year. His term expires at the end of the year. Bates said the mistrial was “very frustrating to me.”

“But I’m certain it’s frustrating to others — probably more,” Bates said.

____

Michael Goldberg reported from Jackson. He is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him at @mikergoldberg.

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Mississippi grand jury cites shoddy investigations by police department at center of mistrial