A Franklin County grand jury last week ruled that a sheriff’s deputy was justified in his use of deadly force when, on Feb. 1, he fired four shots into the automobile of an Eastpoint home, striking the woman in the face and chest.
In a true bill presentment filed with the court July 11, the 21-member grand jury wrote that Deputy Jacob Rieben was “in justifiable fear of death or great bodily harm” when he discharged his service firearm into the hood and windshield of a black Volvo being driven towards him by Sherrie Reenea Silva Jones at her residence at 154 Hickory Dip Road in Eastpoint.
Beyond exonerating Rieben of any wrongdoing, the grand jury went further, praising him for how he handled the situation.
“We appreciate both the bravery and professionalism of (Rieben) in having to endure such a senseless situation,” they wrote. “We ask our law enforcement to keep us safe and ensure a just and orderly community. However, we cannot expect them to do this job without our help and cooperation. Nor can we expect them to do this job without our help and cooperation.
“The decisions of one citizen led to both her being shot and to a deputy being put in mortal fear,” read the statement,
Both Sheriff A.J. Smith and State Attorney Jack Campbell lauded the decision, while Jones’ attorney Fred Conrad saw it differently.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” said Conrad. “Had I had an opportunity to cross examine and confront the witnesses against my client, I’m reasonably certain we would have had a different conclusion than was forthcoming on July 11.
“What was not presented to our grand jury was our side of the story,” he said.
“I was pleased,” said Campbell. “I agree with their conclusions, I agree with what they said in their presentment.”
Campbell was not obligated to empanel the grand jury, he could have decided whether or not to indict the officer based entirely on his own conclusions. But he said he did so in following a precedent set down by his predecessor Willie Meggs
“Any time a law officer is (involved) in a shooting, it’s the ultimate exercise of state power,” he said. “(Willie) Meggs did it and this office will continue to do it.
“It’s the people who live in Franklin County, 21 people randomly selected from the county, who decided. They wrote better than I would have of their feelings about the deputy’s actions,” he said.
“I’m totally good with,” said Smith. “He (Rieben) is on the road. He’s working and he’s doing a good job. I’m proud of the professionalism he shows.”
Conrad said Campbell had offered him a chance to appear at the grand jury, but that he declined the invitation because he had not been afforded a chance to review all the evidence the state attorney planned to introduce to the grand jury.
“I’m not about to walk into an ambush,” he said.
The grand jurors heard testimony from an expert on law enforcement use of force training and protocols, as well as from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s investigator of the shooting incident. The FDLE report has not yet been released to the public.
The grand jurors also reviewed video from law enforcement body cameras, as well as from nearby civilian surveillance cameras that Conrad released to them.
Conrad said his office was repeatedly refused access to evidence by the state attorney’s office, which claimed it was an open investigation. The defense attorney said the judge ordered that he release the civilian surveillance tape, which he did. “They got it the day before hearing,” Conrad said, noting that they had it in raw form, and did not have the frame-by-frame analysis which his office has performed.
According to the true bill presentiment drawn up by the grand jury, the incident took place some time before 5:55 p.m., after Rieben and Major Cliff Carroll responded to the call.
Conrad said Carroll had responded to the call after his brother, who was divorced from Jones, called him.
“Carroll initiated the traffic stop on Jones due to Jones causing a disturbance at 275 U.S. 98,” wrote the grand jury. “Jones failed to stop for (Carroll’s and Rieben’s) emergency vehicles with lights and siren activated until she reached (her residence), about eight-tenths of a mile.”
The true bill said Jones came to a complete stop in her yard, but remained inside her locked vehicle and refused to come out as ordered by the officers, “After several attempts through verbal communication to get Jones out of her vehicle, (Rieben) retrieved a window breaker tool from his patrol vehicle,” the grand jury wrote. “(Rieben) stepped up to Jones’ driver window with the window breaker tool. Jones drove forward as (Rieben) used the window breaker tool on Jones’ driver window.”
The true bill said Jones made a U-turn in her yard and drove towards Rieben. “He drew his issued service firearm from his holster and pointed it towards Jones,” it read. "(He) discharged his (firearm) as Jones continued towards him.”
The document said Jones suffered injuries to the right side of her face and chest, was taken by ambulance to Bay Medical Sacred Heart in Panama City and was treated and released.
The grand jury cited the applicable Florida statutes, which indicate that refusal to stop by a law enforcement officer is subject to a felony charge, and that refusal to do so may be considered aggravated assault or battery on a law enforcement officer.
The true bill said probable cause existed because a law enforcement officer has no obligation to retreat in pursuance of a lawful arrest, and that he or she is justified “in the use of any force which he reasonably believes to be necessary to defend himself or another from bodily harm while making the arrest."
The citation goes on to say that a person being arrested is justified in the use of deadly force “only if he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death of great bodily harm to himself or another.”
In its conclusion, the grand jury found that Jones’ failure to stop when ordered, and continuing to flee gave Rieben probable cause to believe she had committed a felony. It said Rieben acted appropriately in ordering her to open her door and in using a tool to break open the window.
It said that Jones’ decision “to accelerate her vehicle and turn towards (Carroll and Rieben) put them in justifiable fear of death or great bodily harm.
“We further find that (Rieben) was also specifically authorized to shoot into the motor vehicle in an attempt to arrest (Jones),” read the true bill.
Smith said Jones still must face criminal charges in the incident. Jones is slated for an arraignment on Aug. 13 before Circuit Judge Charles Dodson on charges of battery, aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer and fleeing or eluding.
Conrad said Campbell could still decide to drop or lower the charges.
“I would hope that reasonable minds will prevail and that they don’t (charge) her but the cynic in me tells me that they will,” he said. “I will offer a vigorous defense the likes of which have not been seen in a while.”