KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — Although a Sullivan County grand jury found two police officers who shot into a car last year acted within the limits for use of force, the defense attorney representing the car’s driver thinks a federal investigation is warranted.
“They fire 14 or 15 rounds into a car full of teenagers, obviously with the intent to kill,” Johnson City attorney Don Spurrell said of the early morning Jan. 18, 2021 shooting on Cherokee Village Drive. “That’s the use of lethal force on unarmed teenagers in a car.”
The officers — Hawkins County Sheriff’s Deputy Isaac Hutchins and Mount Carmel Police officer Hunter Jones — had pursued a Toyota pickup after it was reported stolen out of Hawkins County about 4 a.m. Jan. 18. The teenager driving the truck and a girl with him had stopped the Toyota, jumped out and jumped into a waiting Ford Fusion driven by Ciia Hall of Kingsport, who was 17 at the time.
A home security camera video shows the Ford, occupied by five teens, backing into the camera’s view in reverse with the officers following on foot with their guns drawn. They position themselves on either side of the car’s front as it’s turning to try and drive forward, then begin firing their weapons as the car starts forward.
Hall, who was hit in the chest, shoulder and arm, was first charged in juvenile court with two counts of aggravated assault for allegedly trying to hit the officers. The case was transferred to adult court and the charges upgraded to attempted second-degree murder.
“This case will turn on the video, because that’s where all the facts are that are relevant to the charges of attempted second degree murder,” Spurrell told News Channel 11.
Spurrell said what’s seen in the video will be enhanced by what occurred just prior.
“But it is enough to see where the young man at 17 years of age full of a car of teenagers was attempting to get away from law enforcement. There is no other suggestion in the video than he is trying to get away from law enforcement. He has no desire to encounter law enforcement, he has no desire to hurt law enforcement. He’s scared and wants to get away.”
A Sullivan County grand jury didn’t see it that way, agreeing in a presentment with the finding that Hall “did unlawfully, feloniously, intentionally and knowingly attempt to kill another, Isaac Hutchins, by attempting to strike him with a motor vehicle…” The second count says the same in the case of Jones.
Hall is also charged with theft of more than $10,000, evading arrest (two counts) and no driver’s license. Spurrell said any findings on the other counts should be judged according to the facts and fair punishment meted out if Hall is guilty.
“Don’t think for one minute that I excuse the conduct of my client,” he said. “I don’t. I think evading arrest is a dangerous behavior. It cannot be tolerated and he needs to be prosecuted for it. And he would accept a fair punishment for that. But to ramp this up into an attempted murder case is simply a method by which to protect and diminish the actions and the misconduct of these police officers.”
Officers exonerated at state level
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) spokeswoman Leslie Earhart told media the morning of the shooting that “as the car was attempting to leave the location, the driver reportedly drove toward the Hawkins County deputy, hitting him.”
No testimony from that officer is available other than his Hawkins County Firearms Incident report. In it, he wrote that he and Jones were attempting to stop a stolen vehicle when the occupants stopped and got into another vehicle.
“While giving commands to the driver to stop the vehicle, the driver accelerated the vehicle towards Officer Jones and myself attempting to run us over with the vehicle. At this time Officer Jones and myself shot into the vehicle to stop the threat,” Hutchins wrote in his report.
In an interview with TBI investigator Brian Fraley, Jones said Hall drove the car “directly at them; extremely close to both” and that “the car got close to Hutchins and close to ‘clipping’ him.”
Spurrell said he doesn’t believe the car hit Hutchins. Jones also told Fraley that after the pair returned to their cars and pursued the juveniles, who were on foot by then, “Hutchins was out of the car and limping trying to walk and fell flat on his face on the sidewalk.”
Spurrell said he believes Fraley is an honest investigator. In his discovery he was not provided any evidence of an interview with Deputy Hutchins, leading him to speculate Hutchins may have refused to talk.
“I hope they’re playing fair,” he said. “I like Mr. Fraley. I think Mr. Fraley is an honest man and I’ve never believed that they would hide the ball. So, I will keep the faith.”
News Channel 11 requested the investigation records from the TBI last week and learned that those become publicly available only in the case of an “officer involved shooting death.” In this case, Hall was injured — enough to spend about a week at Holston Valley Medical Center before being transferred to a juvenile detention center — and the driver of the truck who was in the car’s back seat was shot in the leg.
The video shows the officers following the car after Hutchins, according to Fraley’s interview with Hunter Jones, was “striking the car with an ASP baton” before it went into reverse. Jones told Fraley the officers “followed on foot with guns out yelling for the driver to stop the car.”
Spurrell said the pair then “run up on either side of the vehicle, which is a complete violation of their standards of operating procedure.”
The grand jury didn’t see it that way. In an email to News Channel 11 Wednesday, Second Judicial District DA Barry Staubus wrote that a grand jury reviewed the officers’ use of force.
“The Grand Jury found that both officers acted within the limits for pursuit and use of force,” Staubus wrote.
Because the criminal case against Hall is still pending (he’s scheduled for arraignment June 24) Staubus wrote that he doesn’t plan to release any investigative materials to the public or make any comments regarding the matter right now.
Call for federal involvement by attorney, parents
Spurrell said he’s convinced that Hutchins and Jones did violate procedure. He said even the pursuit wouldn’t have been allowed in jurisdictions with stricter policies about when officers should pursue fleeing suspects.
“There is nothing … in any of the discovery that I’ve seen that would have justified this misadventure of the police that night, this kind of violence,” Spurrell said.
“This kind of misguided police behavior would not have been done by the Kingsport Police Department. It would not have been done by the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department. It would not have been done by the Johnson City Police Department, Bristol police department — would never be supported by those agencies. I can tell you that.”
He doesn’t agree with the grand jury’s finding. In fact, both Spurrell and Hall’s family have contacted the FBI, with Spurrell saying “we have our suspicions that there is a reluctance to conduct an open and transparent investigation.”
Spurrell said a U.S. attorney told him that office only investigates potential misconduct or civil rights violations if the FBI refers something to them.
“There have been letters sent and it’s in their lap (the FBI) at this time and we hope they act appropriately on it,” he said, calling the shooting “one of the most serious incidents in the entire United States.”
FBI spokesman Darrell DeBusk told News Channel 11 in an email that Department of Justice policy prevents the FBI from confirming or denying the existence of a potential investigation. Hall’s mother, Tywanna Anderson, wrote to the agency that the incident violated laws requiring officers to refrain from unreasonable or excessive force and to “keep from harm,” claiming the high speed chase prior to the shooting put the community at risk.
Particularly with new rules governing police misconduct being released at the federal level, Spurrell said he thinks the actions in this case will get sincere attention from the federal government. He believes the officers’ conduct deprived Hall at the very least of his civil rights.
“The use of excessive force is and can be a criminal offense, and we hope that this is taken seriously … We certainly hope that the Biden administration is interested in conducting a thorough evaluation of the evidence and considering very seriously a prosecution of these officers.”
Mount Carmel’s interim town manager, Emily Wood, confirmed Hunter Jones remains employed with the police department. She provided his personnel file upon request and it showed no disciplinary actions and no reference whatsoever to the Jan. 18, 2021 incident.
Hawkins County Sheriff Ronnie Lawson has not responded to multiple emails asking for information regarding Deputy Hutchins.
Spurrell said he considers the departments’ inaction the equivalent of defending misconduct, adding that “it only creates an atmosphere where more of it can take place.”
He added that he knows many law enforcement officers who do their work professionally and “don’t need this kind of operator out there.”
Other officers won’t publicly speak, but he said he guarantees “they are surprised and outraged at the actions of those officers that night. It was way unjustified. It was rogue, it was dangerous, and it was criminal.”
As Anderson, Hall’s father Carllone Hall and Spurrell wait to see whether the officers are investigated further, Spurrell said Ciia Hall has a tough road ahead. Hall was jailed on $150,000 bond for a period before the family was finally able to post bond.
“The family has had to endure some financial insecurity,” he said. “It’s been tough. It’s really been tough. Their son almost died. He was hospitalized with a chest wound. I can be empathetic but I can’t be completely comprehending of what they’ve gone through. But it’s been tough. And it’s gonna get tougher.”