Prosecutor Has Inquest Conflict

The GUARDIAN has received several reader inquiries about the on again-off again-on again coroner’s inquest into the death of 16-year-old Matthew Jones who was shot and killed by a Boise police officer last December.

The Ada County prosecutor has a definite conflict of interest since the only potential defendant is a policeman on the same department the prosecutor represents on a daily basis. In the case of a death not involving a policeman or other official represented by the prosecutor we would not call for recusal.

When it is a cop under scrutiny the public deserves an unbiased interrogator.

These facts seem uncontested: The boy had an old rifle with a bayonet in his hands, suffered from apparent drug abuse, and was at home when he was shot. Officer Johnson was responding to a call for help from father Bruce Jones.

Rather than discuss the elements of the case, the GUARDIAN will comment on the system.

The inquest is to determine the facts surrounding the cause of death and to determine if the shooting was justified. This is where it gets cloudy.

Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg canceled the October 16 hearing, citing an inability to seat a jury that would be impartial due to pretrial publicity. The coroner said there were only two witnesses–Bruce Jones, father of the deceased and Officer Andrew S. Johnson. He seemed unhappy with Jones’ interviews prior to the hearing. Jones expressed fears the inquest would be “pro-police” and said he wanted the truth to emerge from the process, hence the interviews.

Sonnenberg never mentioned the police “show and tell” following the shooting. During that press conference police commanders backed up the officer and displayed the rifle, the officer’s torn shirt and Kevlar vest. This was all under the watch of former interim chief and city council candidate Jim Tibbs.

Coroner Sonnnenberg said the 40 members in the pool of potential jurors displayed bias and held some strong opinions, based on results of a questionnaire they all completed. The questions were supplied by the Ada County Prosecutor’s office and they claim to be standard jury questions.

The Idaho Statesman published the questions and the results, complete with graphs, of the questionnaire in the October 22 edition. The obvious conclusion was that most of the people polled felt they could offer an unbiased opinion.

The troubling aspect of this entire case is the involvement of the prosecutor and the questions themselves which ask about memberships in the ACLU, Amnesty International, the NRA, Neighborhood Watch.

The inquest is a fact finding proceeding–not an adversary hearing with two sides presenting evidence. The GUARDIAN thinks it inappropriate for the Ada County prosecuting attorney to have a role because he would have to “conflict out” of any trial if the jury were to find the officer may have violated the law.

Comments & Discussion

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  1. My thinking, and that of several others is this. It has taken 10 months to get to this point. The “impartial” investigation, conducted by an outside police agency has been concluded, one can assume with some findings and conclusions intact. That document could be made public (since there is no longer an ongoing investigation) but for the fact that Sonnenberg elected to convene an inquest. That in and of itself is a little suspect, given the lack of frequency with which inquests are held.

    It is more than suspicious, and must be to the Jones family, that this all coincides with Tibbs’ bid for City Council. Now tie in to these seemingly serendipitous circumstances the fact that Vern Bisterfeldt, current City Council member up for election, and Tibbs are old friends. Tibbs was Vern’s prodigy of sorts when Tibbs was elected first Union President of the Boise police union. Vern would LOVE to have a fellow Council member who shares his appreciation for public safety and supports him in annexation issues. Just looking at news footage of the evening in question and the news briefing that followed in the next days, one can surely surmise that Tibbs mishandled this incident in some fairly considerable ways. Just when the department was getting past the Ryan Hennessey et al critical incidents, he is on TV stating emphatically from the first moment that his officer followed procedure. Some of us thought they had learned better that to jump to conclusions, which automatically erodes public trust, prior to even a cursory investigative process. (Hello Ombudsman) Now, add that Vern Bisterfeldt is the guy everyone wants on their side in a street fight. No one wants to cross him, at least if they have history with him. Enter Greg Bower. They certainly have history, clear back to decades ago. Hell hath no fury like a Bisterfeldt scorned. There are too many coincidences here for my liking. Sonnenberg seemed to lack both conviction and credibility when stating he couldn’t find an impartial panel. I don’t think anyone believes him. So what is the real reason. I’d like to know before I go to the polls….not after.

  2. I’ve heard some rumors that Tibbs actually lost some of the evidence in the case. Does anyone know anything about that? I too want to get more info on this case before I go to the polls.

  3. The “rumors” about Tibbs were started at “city hall”.

  4. The “rumors” about Tibbs’ mishandling of the Jones investigation didn’t start anywhere. I think honest objective observation leads rational people to see the case was mishandled. Why was Joe Fillecetti, attorney to officer Johnson, allowed to prowl the actual incident scene prior to forensic evidence being gathered? Now, Allyson Outen reports Tibbs stating that during his hastily called press conference days afterward “he was merely reporting what had been reported to him”. Those are weasel words which decoded mean “I was wrong and gave false information to the public, but it wasn’t my fault, somebody told me to”. Whassup with that? At the time of a critical incident involving police the public wants as much information as is ACCURATE and that can be released without jeopardizing the investigation. If Tibbs found at some later time that he had given erroneous information, he should have come back to the public and fessed up. He did not. As far as I am concerned there goes his “I didn’t know” argument. I can assure you when this is all said and done we will understand why Tibbs wasn’t named Chief of Police. Oh, and when Allyson asked him a direct question about the delay of the inquest….he gave a non-answer. He didnt’ say NO! If a criminal investigator heard that answer the questioning would have just begun. “Rumors” often begin at City Hall and many have proved true over the years. Hide and watch.

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