PETAL, Miss.—Brittany Jefferson had just left her grandmother’s house on June 2, 2017, when she stopped at a red light on Evelyn Gandy Parkway in Petal, Miss., and spotted a black man lying on the ground, with two white men and a white Petal police officer next to a blue Buick SUV.
A “gut feeling” told her to pull her phone out and start recording, but the white 20-year-old college student decided against it. “It’s probably just a traffic stop or something,” Jefferson thought to herself, figuring the light would turn green before she could even press record.
The light remained red, though, and soon the man, who was wearing a white tank top, stood up, his empty hands stretched out to either side. The officer, standing at a distance, drew his pistol and pointed it at him. Jefferson could tell the man was saying something to the officer, but could not make out the words they exchanged through her car windows.
Moments later, the man took what looked to her like one small step toward the officer. Three shots rang out.
Marc Davis, a 34-year-old father of five from LaPlace, La., fell face-forward onto the ground, minutes after he had been in a car accident and called 911 for help. A doctor at Forrest General Hospital would later pronounce him dead.
“Why did you shoot him? We had him,” Bryan Lee, a white man who had helped the officer hold Davis on the ground just before Jefferson pulled up, shouted at Petal Police Officer Aaron Jernigan.
The light turned green, and the shocked Jones College student, who had not heard what Lee said, drove away and pulled into the Dirt Cheap parking lot across the highway. Struggling to catch her breath, she called her mother, relaying through sobs the scene she had just witnessed.
In the hours and days that followed, Jefferson expected the news of an unarmed black man’s shooting death to draw widespread attention. But despite posting comments on local outlets, she never got a call from the local media around Forrest County, she told the Mississippi Free Press Thursday. Local outlets WDAM and Hattiesburg American did run several short news stories about the incident, but with little fanfare.
“I expected it to blow up, but it didn’t. It was hush-hush,” she said.
Nearly three years later, Marc Davis’ family is battling the City of Petal in federal court, and Jernigan remains employed with the Petal Police Department. The officer claimed Davis had tried to take his weapon, and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations said it found no wrongdoing after investigating the shooting.
Mayor Hal Marx: ‘Police Are Being Crucified’
While Marc Davis’ death has largely flown under the radar, the small South Mississippi town that calls itself “The Friendly City” has been embroiled in controversy for days now over comments its mayor, Hal Marx, made about the police killing of George Floyd, another black man who died in Minneapolis, 1,130 miles north of Petal.
“If you say you can’t breathe, you’re breathing,” Marx tweeted, referring to 46-year-old Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer used his knee to pin the man to the ground by his neck.
“Please, please, I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe, officer,” Floyd can be heard moaning in video footage of the incident in Minnesota, while the officer’s partner looks away. After several minutes, Floyd stops speaking and becomes motionless, the white officer’s knee still on the dead man’s neck.
Though the video of Floyd’s death drew widespread condemnation from across the political spectrum, Marx, a Republican, sided with the officer and his partner, both of whom the Minneapolis Police Department fired after the footage emerged.
“Police are being crucified,” Marx lamented on Twitter on Tuesday.
On Thursday night, protesters raged in the streets of Minneapolis, where the officer who held Floyd down would still not face arrest for another day, and buildings burned, including a police precinct.
Down South in Petal, though, residents of the largely suburban town raged at their mayor in a packed, raucous town hall meeting after all six members of the all-white, all-male Petal Board of Aldermen called on Marx to resign for “isolating” and “haranguing citizens” on social media—a request he refused, saying he would not give in to a “mob mentality.”
Myla Cox, a black 17-year-old Petal High School graduate who is now a student at the prestigious Brown University in Rhode Island, spoke directly to Marx at last night’s meeting about the harm he causes when he defends police brutality and posts other inflammatory statements to Twitter.
“I had to work so hard to represent Mississippi as a whole at an Ivy League. And you know how they look down at folks like us,” she said. “You are the type of person who makes it so hard for minorities to exceed. I can’t listen to you any longer, but I need you to understand your time is coming very soon. And it would be a lot easier for you now to just step down.”
Attorney Matthew Lawrence, who is from the significantly larger college town of Hattiesburg, just across the Leaf River, told Marx that he is “abusive.” He also called on the City to release all documentation and video footage of the final moments of Marc Davis’ life—a shooting Marx defended in a 2018 interview with the Hattiesburg American.
“I am confident that our officer did nothing wrong,” Marx told the paper that June.
Marx, who did not respond to a request for comment from the Mississippi Free Press, similarly defended his comments about George Floyd in an interview with the Hattiesburg American earlier this week, saying he has seen “too many cases where the police were judged to be guilty but later were found to be not guilty under the law.”
“For sending that, all of a sudden I’m called a racist, I need to have a knee put on my neck—all kinds of hateful stuff simply for having an opinion and asking people to get all the facts before they judge,” said the mayor, one day after baselessly tweeting that Floyd likely “died of overdose or heart attack.”
Jernigan: Davis Was ‘Acting in a Strange Manner’
In his September 2019 ruling on the civil lawsuit that Marc Davis’ widow, Yoshanta Albert, filed, U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett agreed with MBI’s conclusions and sided with the City of Petal, finding no fault in Officer Jernigan’s actions. The family is now appealing the decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
Jeffery Harness, the family’s attorney, told the Mississippi Free Press Thursday that he does not yet know when the court will hear the case.
“Davis—a larger and stronger man than Jernigan—was aggressively advancing toward Jernigan, despite Jernigan’s warnings, after he had just physically assaulted Jernigan and tried to take his weapon,” Starrett wrote in his 2019 decision. “That Jernigan arguably created the situation by ordering the civilians to release Davis is irrelevant to the reasonableness of Jernigan’s actions at the moment of the shooting.”
In one 911 recording included in legal filings, the other driver, Susan Creel, tells the operator that “a man ran a red light and hit me.” The filings also include a transcript of Davis’ 911 call.
“911, what is your emergency?” the operator says.
“I need a ride to the hospital,” Davis replies.
“Where, where are you at?” the operator asks.
“Where are we at?” he says.
“Are you in a wreck?” the operator asks.
“Yes ma’am,” he says.
“OK, I have an officer. IJ, listen to me, I have officers en route,” the operator says. “I’m going to get AAA en route to you, too. What’s going on.”
“No, I need an ambulance,” he replies. “My head.”
“OK, I’m going to get the ambulance. What’s going on?” the operator asks.
“I need to get to the hospital, ma’am.”
“Yes, I understand that, can you hear me?” she asks.
“Yes, I need the hospital bed,” he says.
When she asks again what is wrong with him, Davis says only, “My, my neck, my back.”
The transcript shows the dropped call, with Davis calling back moments later.
“911,” the operator says.
“Yes ma’am, I need help, the ambulance,” he says.
“Sir, I’ve got them en route to you. Can you please stop calling 911? I’ve got officers and AAA en route to you, OK?” the operator says, at which point the call ends.
Jernigan claimed in a sworn statement that, around 10 a.m. on June 2, 2017, he headed to the intersection of Evelyn Gandy Parkway and Leeville Road after getting a call about a crash.
“As I approached the Buick, I witnessed a black male, approximately 6 feet tall, weighing approximately 300 pounds, later identified by MBI as Marc Davis, in a white tank top and tan pants sitting on the driver’s side running board of the SUV with his head down, and a white male in a Bowman Heating and Air shirt standing near the rear of the Buick,” Jernigan said.
The officer asked Lee if he was injured, and Davis got up and began to walk toward him, he said.
“I heard Mr. Davis speak, but did not understand what he said. Mr. Davis was acting in a strange manner and would not answer if he was OK or needed an ambulance,” the officer said in the statement. “Mr. Davis continued to advance toward me as I told him to back up, due to the fact that he was making me nervous with his actions.”
Jernigan said Davis “lunged” at him and “we began to tussle,” at which point the officer grabbed the man by his shirt with his left hand and put his right hand on his “neck (or) throat area.” At some point, the officer said, he “realized (Davis) was attempting to grab my firearm with his left hand.”
One 911 caller at the time described a “a larger black man in a white shirt” at the intersection who stood up and “started going toward the cop.”
“And the cop had his hand out, and then he grabbed him, and then they started fighting, and, uh,” the caller says, before the dispatch operator interrupts.
“OK, let me answer this other line. Hang on one second,” the operator says. The transcript indicates the call ended at that point.
In his statement, Jernigan said that while he was wrestling with Davis, he yelled for the nearby Bowman employee to help. Another white man in a blue pick-up, Bryan Lee, arrived moments later and helped subdue Davis, he claimed.
Jernigan said he then pulled his taser out and fired it into Davis’ right side.
‘Hands Out to the Side, Kind of Like Jesus’
Moments later, Brittany Jefferson pulled up at the intersection, where she saw Davis on the ground. Then Jernigan ordered the other two men to step away, allowing Davis to stand up.
Jernigan’s account differs from the story Jefferson related to the Mississippi Free Press. In his statement, Jernigan says Davis stood up and began advancing toward him. The officer said he gave Davis several loud verbal commands to get on the ground, but the man “continued to advance towards me.”
“Knowing Mr. Davis had full intentions of trying to gain control of my firearm, and fearing for my life and the lives and safety of the bystanders around me, I fired three shots into Mr. Davis,” Jernigan said in his statement. “After firing the three shots, I witnessed blood come from the nose and mouth area of Mr. Davis, as he fell forward onto the ground.”
In Jefferson’s telling, though, Davis did not appear threatening, nor was he constantly advancing on Jernigan.
“He had his hands out to his side, kind of like Jesus,” she said yesterday. “He wasn’t in any position to charge the officer. And he moved his foot not even an inch. He was standing there talking to the police officer and the officer shot him three times and he hit the ground face forward.” In his statement the day of the shooting, Bryan Lee said he was headed to Walmart when he saw Jernigan fighting with Davis. Another man was standing nearby, he said.
“As I turned onto (Evelyn Gandy Parkway), the officer and the man were standing in (the) median wrestling for the officer’s gun. I immediately stopped to help. I parked on the left shoulder. The officer said, ‘Help me.’”
Lee said that the officer “shot the man with his taser” and “wrestled him to the ground.”
“They were both wrestling for the officer’s gun,” Lee said in his statement. “I thought, if this guy gets this gun from him, he will shoot us all.”
‘Why Did You Have to Shoot Him?’
Lee then got on top of Davis’ chest, he said, and “pinned his left elbow with my left knee.”
“I pin his head down, my right elbow on the side of his throat. I finally am able to ply the man’s right hand away from the officer’s holster and pin it to the ground beside the man’s head. I then hear the officer say, ‘Get off.’ I immediately jump up. The officer is now standing and backing away from the man, the officer with with gun drawn, gives verbal commands to ‘Stay down.’”
Davis got up, though, and moved between him and the officer, Lee said.
“Stop, stop or I’ll shoot,” Lee recalled the officer saying. Davis replied, “Go ahead and shoot, motherfucker,” Lee claimed.
“The man is now between the officer and myself. I moved toward the West Bound shoulder of the road. As soon as I moved, the officer fired shots,” Lee wrote in the June 2, 2017 statement. “I shouted, ‘Why did you have to shoot him? We had him.’ The officer replied, ‘I had no choice.’ Other responders came and started administering CPR. The officer asked was I OK and thanked me for assisting him. That was basically it.”
In his own June 2, 2017 statement, Jernigan says that he continued to train his gun on Davis, who was facedown on the ground, until another officer, Justin Yawn, arrived. At that point, the two men handcuffed the wounded man’s hands. Afterwards, an ambulance arrived and transferred him to Forrest General Hospital, where a doctor pronounced him dead.
In a sworn affidavit in 2019, Lee sought to explain his initially bewildered response to the officer’s decision to shoot.
“As part of my statements I included statements that I uttered at the scene, including, ‘Why did you have to shoot him? We had him.’ I included this utterance because I was trying to recount the events of the shooting,” Lee said. “Looking back, I see that Officer Jernigan had no choice but to use deadly force to defend himself, me, and others at the scene of this incident who would have been endangered if Mr. Davis had acquired Officer Jernigan’s weapon.”
‘They Put Their Fear First’
Hattiesburg attorney Matthew Lawrence, the Davis family and supporters of his family believe the City of Petal could clear up confusion around what happened that morning by releasing documentation footage from cameras at the Evelyn Gandy-Leville intersection. Reginald Davis, Marc Davis’ older brother, told the Mississippi Free Press yesterday that the City of Petal has not been forthcoming with the family, either, and he was not even aware of Brittany Jefferson’s account of that day.
The Petal Police Department has not responded to a request for comment.
Reginald Davis, who is Marc Davis’ older brother, told the Mississippi Free Press that his family still hopes for justice. Marc Davis, he said, was his mother’s youngest child and a family man who “would talk about God a lot.”
This afternoon, a multiracial cast of Petal residents and other Mississippians gathered on the town’s City Hall lawn, many wearing masks to protect themselves amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as one person after another took the microphone to speak to call for Mayor Marx’s resignation. Among the demonstrators were several holding signs calling for “Justice for Marc Davis.”
Lawrence, who is white, was among today’s speakers.
“Nobody ever got closure from the fact that Marc Davis was—I’ll just say what y’all would say in the opposite way—was presumptively murdered by the police,” Lawrence said, gesturing toward local and county law enforcement officers who were lined up along a nearby building.
“Because nobody ever released the information,” Lawrence continued. “We’ve known that Marx is racist. But we find out that the mayor is a complete psycho racist? … We want to see all of Hal Marx’s official emails from that time (of Davis’ shooting). All of them. We want to know the context. We are going to get them. We are going to try to get his personal communications from that time to see what was going on. And we’re going to see what happened.”
In a text message late Friday, Davis’ mother said she hopes this publication is able to uncover more information about what happened that day nearly three years ago.
“I pray you are successful because we never were. All I have are bits and pieces from lawyers here and there,” she wrote. “I never heard anything significant from any officials.”
Brittany Jefferson told the Mississippi Free Press on Thursday that she, too, fears the City is not telling the whole story about Davis’ death because, all around the country, “this keeps happening and the government just tries to cover it up.”
“Especially the most recent death in Minneapolis. It really saddens me. It’s gotten out of control,” she said. “The cops, they put their fear first. I don’t know why they have such fear in just a human being.”