Trial of father accused in 2009 death of 2-year-old son begins

Becky Campbell • Nov 26, 2012 at 10:31 PM

A jury heard some of the last attempts of a 2-year-old boy trying to breathe after he accidentally shot himself in the face, sounds that were recorded on the 911 call his father made the night the child died.

Jacob Mitchell’s last breaths sounded like hiccups as he tried to unsuccessfully take in oxygen.

The boy’s father, Christopher Mitchell, 29, faces felony first-degree murder and aggravated child neglect in the case. In an unusual move, he pleaded guilty to two other charges — tampering with evidence and identity theft — as Assistant District Attorney Dennis Brooks read the indictment to the jury just before proof began. The incident happened Jan. 11, 2009, at the Value Place Hotel, where the family was living at the time.

On the emergency call, the 911 dispatcher instructed Mitchell how to perform rescue breathing for his son, and he reported back that it helped his son start to breathe again.

Mitchell sounded panicked and frantic on the recording, asking over and over to get help there quickly.

The sound of the dying boy’s attempts to breathe were emotional for some of Jacob’s family who were in the courtroom, as well as Mitchell, who sobbed at times when he listened to the call.

Jurors also watched the video recorded police interview between Mitchell and Johnson City Police Investigator Michael Barron. That video came late in the day and had jurors taking notes while also looking back and forth between Mitchell in the courtroom and Mitchell on the recording.

Jacob died after he apparently found a loaded .25-caliber handgun in the hotel room. Mitchell never mentioned a gun, or that his son was shot, when he called 911, talked to EMS and police at the scene or when Barron interviewed him.

He even lied about his own name, but when police caught him in that mistruth he said it was because he had a warrant for his arrest on a probation violation and he simply wanted to hurry things along so he could go see his son at the hospital.

Mitchell admitted to having had a gun earlier that day, but on the video said he’d sold it to a guy from Elizabethton who was at the hotel.

The evening of the incident, Mitchell and his son were asleep, but Jacob woke up. That’s when police believe he retrieved the gun from somewhere in the room.

In the interview, Mitchell told police he woke up to find Jacob sitting on his knees in a chair rocking it. He said the chair tipped over, Jacob went to the floor and he heard a loud boom as the chair shot out from under the boy and into a cabinet.

But nothing in Mitchell’s statement ever explained that noise, and he told police he couldn’t understand what caused his son’s injury, which consisted of a hole in his left cheek and a large bump on the right side of his head.

In opening statements, defense attorney Gene Scott told the jury that it was no big deal that Mitchell used the wrong name.

“It doesn’t change a single thing. He used the wrong name because … he wanted to go to the hospital to see his child,” Scott said.

That was one thing Scott asked witnesses about — if Mitchell using a false name made any difference in the treatment Jacob received. Witnesses said it didn’t make a difference.

Scott is trying to downplay his client’s lie to police because he said it was simply a grieving father who wanted to see his dying son.

The false identity charge is one of two Mitchell pleaded guilty to at the beginning of the trial. He also pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence, a charge brought because the gun was hidden outside the hotel on top of an electrical box.

Scott also told the jury in his opening statement that the case boils down to “you have to decide is if this is child neglect by simply having a gun in the home and the child finds that gun and accidentally shoots himself.

“It’s not fair for the state to get up and criticize somebody for what they do in a time of panic. That’s what it was, a time of panic. Bottom line is this was an accident, it’s not a crime,” Scott said.

Brooks sees it differently.

“The proof will show conclusively this was a preventable death with just an ounce of responsibility on the part of this defendant,” Brooks said.

Mitchell was also charged in federal court for being a felon in possession of a firearm — the one that killed his son. He pleaded guilty to that in U.S. District Court in Greeneville and is serving a 15-year sentence.

Brooks is assisted in the case by Assistant District Attorney Janet Vest Hardin. Scott has two attorneys at his side – Ashley Boyer and Matt Bolton.

If convicted of felony murder, Mitchell faces life in prison. The aggravated child neglect charge carries up to 25 years in prison.

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