BRISTOL, Va. — Authorities would release none of the evidence Wednesday that led to the murder indictment against a Bristol Virginia Police Department officer this week — resulting in more questions regarding this rare criminal prosecution.
A grand jury in Bristol indicted Johnathan Brown, 31, Monday on charges of murder, using a firearm in the commission of a felony and shooting into an occupied vehicle in the March shooting death of Jonathen Kohler, 31, of Bristol, Tennessee.
State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said Wednesday that the agency is not releasing video, witness statements or reports contained within the criminal investigative file due to pending prosecution. A search warrant affidavit filed in Wythe County notes that troopers viewed video during the investigation, however, the state declined to release the footage Wednesday. Police earlier refused to release the 911 call.
On March 30, State Police said Bristol officers were called to the Rodeway Inn on Euclid Avenue on the report of shots fired. Officers who responded to the call encountered Kohler in the driver’s seat of a 1994 Ford Mustang.
“As officers were verbally engaged with Kohler, he backed up and then drove forward in an attempt to exit the parking lot, at which point one of the officers fired at Kohler’s vehicle,” a State Police statement said Tuesday.
On the day of the shooting, however, State Police said Kohler refused to exit the vehicle “despite repeated commands by the officers.”
“He then put the Mustang into drive and sped towards one of the officers,” the March 30 release states. The officer fired at the suspect vehicle as it came at him.”
Koehler died at the scene. No officers were injured.
“The March 30 press release reflects the details State Police had during the first few hours of the investigation,” Geller said Wednesday. “Weeks of conducting an extensive criminal investigation into the incident resulted in the updated information released May 4, 2021.”
Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney Donald Caldwell, who was appointed by a judge to prosecute the case, declined to discuss the evidence that his office presented to the grand jury.
“I don’t believe in trying cases in the public eye,” he told The Associated Press. “The evidence will be presented during trial, and a trier of fact, either a judge or jury, will make a decision.”
Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who collects data on police-officer involved shootings and criminal prosecutions, said grand jurors often are reluctant to second-guess the split-second decisions of on-duty police officers in violent or potentially violent street encounters.
In recent years, Stinson said he’s been contacted by prosecutors from a number of jurisdictions around the country who have struggled to get grand juries to return indictments against police officers in fatal on-duty shooting cases. In most cases, he notes, the officers are ultimately found to have been legally justified in using deadly force and are not charged with any crime.
With details of the Bristol case scant, Stinson said he wasn’t immediately able to say why a grand jury would have indicted the officer.
Not including the Brown case, from 2005 to April of this year, there have been 141 non-federal police officers in the United States who have been arrested for murder or manslaughter resulting from an on-duty shooting, according to Stinson’s data. Of those, 44 have been convicted of a crime resulting from the shooting, including 19 by guilty plea and 25 by jury trial. No officers have been convicted in a bench trial, he said.
Often, officers are convicted of a lesser offense. Only seven officers were convicted of murder during that period. They received sentences that ranged from 81 months to life in prison.
Forty-four cases are pending across the country.
Kohler, the man killed March 30, has had run-ins with police in the past, and had pending charges in Sullivan County Criminal Court. In February 2020, a grand jury handed down a 10-count indictment against Kohler, which included aggravated kidnapping, aggravated burglary and aggravated domestic assault charges.
The indictments, which were dismissed last month due to his death, stemmed from an incident reported June 30, 2019, when Bristol Tennessee Police Department officers were called to a burglary on Volunteer Parkway. While en route, officers spotted Kohler driving a Chevrolet Trailblazer. As he was traveling toward the officers, an officer activated his lights and a pursuit began, according to a criminal affidavit.
“Kohler was traveling at a high rate of speed straight towards us barely avoiding a collision with Sgt. [Joe] Newman’s patrol car as he passed, but struck the front of a parked Ford F250,” the affidavit states.
The pursuit ended after officers said Kohler was traveling at 100 miles per hour on Volunteer Parkway toward the state line.
The kidnapping and assault charges were filed because police believed that Kohler broke into the apartment of a woman he knew and told her to “sit still, shut up and listen to me.” Kohler was accused of keeping the woman, who said she felt threatened, from calling 911. An order of protection had been in place at the time of the burglary, the affidavit states.
Kohler had various misdemeanor and felony convictions in North Carolina and Tennessee, as well as traffic violations and fugitive-from-justice arrests in Virginia, according to court and department of corrections searches. In North Carolina, he was found guilty of theft of firearms. Theft, criminal trespassing, meth possession and criminal impersonation convictions were reported in Tennessee. He also had several probation violations over the years.
Police have not said why Kohler was in the Rodeway Inn parking lot March 30.
Brown was suspended without pay Tuesday pending the outcome of an internal affairs investigation, according to a statement signed by Bristol Mayor Bill Hartley and City Manager Randall Eads.
Brown, who turned himself in to police and was then released on $25,000 bail, has retained Abingdon attorney Heather Howard to represent him as the case proceeds in Bristol Virginia Circuit Court.