Father facing up to 40 years for 2-year-old son's death

Becky Campbell • Nov 28, 2012 at 10:04 PM

A Johnson City man now faces nearly 40 years in prison for the death of his 2-year-old son, who accidentally shot himself in 2009.

Christopher Mitchell, 29, was convicted Wednesday of criminally negligent homicide and felony reckless endangerment, but had originally faced felony murder and aggravated child neglect charges for Jacob Mitchell’s death.

Ironically, Mitchell faces more time for the two charges he pleaded guilty to at the beginning of the trial than for his son’s death. As the trial started Monday, Mitchell pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and identity theft, which stemmed from him giving a false name to police and hiding the gun involved

The incident happened Jan. 11, 2009, at the Value Place Hotel, where the family was living at the time. Jacob’s mother, Heather, who is now remarried, was working that night.

Mitchell took the stand Wednesday and was the only defense witness, while state prosecutors spent the previous two days stacking the evidence against him.

The jury took a little more than two hours to render the verdicts.

Mitchell’s defense attorney, Gene Scott, said this was a difficult case.

“I appreciate the jury’s verdict,” Scott said. “I know it was a difficult case for them to decide. Under the circumstances I think it was a fair verdict.”

But Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Brooks was not as pleased.

“I feel like I gave that case everything I had,” Brooks said. “I will continue to prosecute people who hurt children as hard as I can.”

Brooks said child neglect and felony murder statutes are confusing but said they are designed to keep children safe.

“We didn’t have proof he was neglectful other than that one day of Jacob’s life,” Brooks said. The jury “found him responsible for his son’s death, which he never wanted to take responsibility for.”

Mitchell faces one to six years in prison each for the criminally negligent homicide and felony reckless endangerment convictions, 12 years on the identity theft guilty plea and 15 years on the tampering with evidence guilty plea.

Brooks said with Mitchell’s numerous prior convictions he will likely qualify as a career offender, so he faces the higher end of the sentence range.

“We will ask for consecutive sentencing,” Brooks said.

Whatever sentences Mitchell receives will be in addition to a 12-year probation violation he is serving — he is eligible for release in April on that one — and a 15-year federal sentence for possessing the handgun that killed Jacob.

When he took the stand, Mitchell testified he was panicked when his son accidentally shot himself with the gun the boy found in a kitchen cabinet, but that he acted selfishly by lying to police to avoid arrest for an outstanding warrant.

After Mitchell’s testimony, attorneys made closing arguments, Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood finished his instructions and the jury panel went to lunch before returning just after 1 p.m. to begin deliberations.

Part of what Mitchell said on the stand confirmed a crime scene investigator’s theory of what happened Jan. 11, 2009, when the boy died.

Johnson City Police Investigator Bob Odom testified Tuesday that evidence at the scene led him to believe the incident started at the bed in the hotel room at Value Place Hotel, where the Mitchells were living after being evicted from their rental home in December.

Mitchell testified that he and his son fell asleep and he woke up to Jacob being near the end of the bed, touching his head and that the boy said, “Daddy.”

Then, Mitchell said, he heard a loud boom. It was the gun going off, and then his son fell to the floor.

“I remember my son at the edge of the bed saying my name, then he just fell. I heard a loud bark. He was just laying on the floor bleeding,” Mitchell testified as he broke down on the stand.

He said he checked his son and called 911 for help. Mitchell performed CPR on his son to get him breathing again, then carried him outside as he heard emergency vehicles turning into the parking lot.

As police began their investigation and questioned Mitchell, he said he lied about his identity because of an outstanding probation violation warrant. There were other lies too, including telling police the family had eaten at Chick-Fil-A that Sunday.

“I was probably the only person who didn’t know Chick-Fil-A was closed,” he said.

Mitchell said the gun had been in the cabinet beside the refrigerator but ended up on the floor beside his son. That also contradicted what he told police, which was that a friend put the gun in the cabinet above the stove. He testified about the chair police found in the kitchen up against the bottom cabinet and said it was either there all along or he could have bumped into it on his way out the door with Jacob.

The chair’s placement is in question because Odom testified there were several small blood drops under the chair, which he said means the chair was not there when the blood dripped.

Mitchell acknowledged several times that “I lied to everyone,” about what really happened, including police, his wife at the time and his own mother.

“All I know is I’m here accused of taking my son’s life and I didn’t take my child’s life,” he said.

During closing arguments, Brooks reminded the jury of Mitchell’s criminal past, of his lies to police and what he said was Mitchell’s inability to take responsibility for his actions.

“I told you in openings that all he had to do was one ounce of responsible parenting and we wouldn’t be here. And he didn’t do it,” Brooks said.

Scott told jurors to put themselves in Mitchell’s shoes. He also told the panel that prosecutors didn’t prove aggravated child neglect, because it requires that he knowingly did it and for it to be murder Mitchell had to have intended for his son to die.

Mitchell is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 9.

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