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Judge: "Inexcusable" police misstep delays first-degree murder trial set for Monday

Becky Campbell • Feb 20, 2019 at 7:12 PM

Washington County Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice didn’t mince words Wednesday in a last-minute motion hearing where the defense asked to delay a first-degree murder trial slated for next week because of newly discovered state’s evidence — five police car dash cam videos from the crime scene.

Jury selection was scheduled for Friday in the first-degree murder trial of Michael W. Young, 48, Lambeth Court, and the trial was set to start with opening statements on Monday morning.

But last week, as prosecutors were working on trial preparation, they discovered that video from police car dash cameras existed but was never turned over to them from the Johnson City Police Department. Two JCPD investigators — Criminal Investigative Division Capt. Matt Howell and the lead investigator on the case, Joe Jaynes, attended the hearing and acknowledged dropping the ball.

The shooting

Police responded to the corner of North Roan Street and Lambeth Drive on Feb. 13, 2016, after Mijares’ teenage son waved down a passing motorist for help. The teen said he had witnessed Young shoot his father.

The youth told police he and his father were on their way for coffee at a nearby market when a green vehicle pulled out from Young’s driveway and pulled up close to his father’s vehicle as they drove from their residence on Lambeth Court toward North Roan. At some point, the green vehicle, later determined to be driven by Young, went around Mijares and pulled in front of him.

When both vehicles stopped at the stop sign at Lambeth Drive and North Roan, Jose Mijares got out of the vehicle and approached the car ahead of them. The teen said his father was going to talk to the driver about why he had cut in front of them.

The teenager told police he didn’t hear his father say anything, but saw the man in the green truck shoot his father. Mijares was shot in the chest and later died from his injury.

Motions

For the past three years, Young has been represented by father-and-son attorneys Rick and Matthew Spivey. The defense filed multiple motions, including discovery motions, soon after the case was bound over to Criminal Court with very specific requests in the documents. 

The motions filed “requested these audio tapes, video tapes and statements of witnesses, which I know the court is very aware of because of our lengthy hearings that carried over two different dates,” Matthew Spivey said Wednesday.

One of those hearings dealt with video of Mijares’ son in an interview room at JCPD that was taped over because wasn’t pulled from the department’s hard drive and was eventually recorded over. Rice ruled in 2017 that while police failed to preserve the evidence, it was not enough to warrant a dismissal as the defense requested.

The defense renewed its motion in 2018 after the state filed more detailed affidavits from the young witness and his mother, Juana Mijares, about their interaction with police in the interrogation room.

Both Juana Mijares and her son, Jesus, testified at the 2018 motion hearing. Juana Mijares, through a Spanish-to-English interpreter, said that she and her son met with a police officer in a small interview room at the Johnson City Police Department after the shooting. She said the officer wrote some things on a piece of paper and her son signed it. Mijares said she didn’t understand what the officer asked her son because she doesn’t speak English.

Again, Rice ruled the state failed to preserve the physical evidence — the recording — but it was not enough prejudice to dismiss the case.

The defense motion asked specifically for dash cam video from patrol cars of officers who were on the shooting scene. They were told no such evidence existed, but that proved to be false information after the five videos surfaced last week.

Newly Discovered Video

Assistant District Attorney General Erin McArdle told the judge that as soon as she and Assistant DAG Robin Ray discovered the videos were recorded and might still exist, they immediately took action to preserve them and called the Spiveys to let them know of the new development.

“In watching the one video .... it became very apparent there were more videos,” McArdle said. “That was based on context,” of comments heard on the video, she said. Ray went through the 911 transmissions to determine which officers were on scene, according to McArdle, and that led to the realization there were five videos.

Apparently one of the videos is of a police officer talking to Jesus Mijares and asking what had happened.

What Happened

After hearing both attorneys give their statements on the issue, Rice said she wanted to hear from Jaynes to find out how the videos were overlooked. Jaynes testified and answered questions from the judge.

“It seems like I remember telling the officers at the time, at the scene, to be sure to download the videos,” Jaynes said.

“It  seems like you remember?” Rice asked. “To the best of my knowledge, yes ma’am,” Jaynes said. “I don’t really have an excuse your honor. Just due to everything else that was involved in analyzing the scene ... speaking with the witnesses, I just, I just forgot about it.”

“You forgot about it,” Rice asked. “About the videos, yes ma’am,” Jaynes said. He went on to say that police department policy in 2016 was that only supervisors could access video from an officer’s vehicle camera. Jaynes said as of Tuesday, he was given approval to access videos from patrol vehicles.

“Prior to that I would have had to reach out to a patrol supervisor to get those videos,” Jaynes said.

The Ruling

“The defense has, in writing and verbally, asked for this evidence,” Rice said. “They’ve been told it didn’t exist. The Johnson City Police Department, to my knowledge, the largest police department east of Knoxville. And let me say this was not under Capt. Howell’s watch .... but I hope this hearing will motivate you and your secondary lieutenants, so to speak, to develop at least some system where — especially in a case of this magnitude — that this does not happen again.”

“To say that this is tragic is an understatement. We have a (victim’s) family that has been gearing up for three years to have a trial, we have the defense who’s been preparing and Mr. Young, who is entitled to a fair trial and effective representation,” the judge said. “This has absolutely shattered that ability in every respect.”

Rice said had it not been for the prosecutors diligence in trial preparation, the videos may have never been discovered.

“There was virtually no effort to gather this information. And to credit the prosecutors and their preparation to get everything together, they’re the ones who found it. That’s inexcusable. That is absolutely inexcusable. They are not the investigators in this case, they are the prosecutors,” she said.

“The state nor the defense knows what’s on these five videos today ... an epic fail that we are 48 hours from jury selection in a three-year-old first-degree murder trial and we’ve got a hunk of evidence at the crime scene at the time it occurred that’s missing,” Rice said. She said the court had no choice but to grant the continuance and apologized to the Mijares family for what happened.

Rice also directed Jaynes to go back and look for “anything that is relative to this case. I don’t care if it’s gum on the bottom of somebody’s shoe. The state needs to know about it, and it needs to be turned over to the defense.”

Rice set jury selection for the trial on Sept. 20 and the trial for Sept. 23-27. There will also be a motion hearing in June. Young remains free on $100,000 bond while his case is pending.

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