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Petal Officer Who Fatally Shot Marc Davis Declared ‘2020 Officer of the Year’

Petal Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Valerie Wilson, left, presented the organization’s 2020 Officer of the Year award to Petal Police Department Officer Aaron Jernigan on Feb. 17, 2021. Photo courtesy Petal Police Department.

“Good afternoon. My name is Catherine Davis. I am the mother of the late Marc Davis,” the visitor from Louisiana said as hundreds of locals gathered around her on the lawn of Petal City Hall last May. “My son was killed on your streets. My son was murdered on your streets. My son cried for help from a motor vehicle accident.”

Marc Davis is sitting in a chair and looking up at the camera with the hint of a smile as face while his mother, Catherine Davis, is standing over him with her hands on both of his shoulders, a wide smile on her face as she looks to the camera.
Catherine Davis, pictured here with Marc Davis, her youngest child, said she has “never heard anything significant from any officials” about her son’s death. Photo courtesy Davis family.

Three years earlier, on June 2, 2017, her son, a 34-year-old Black father of five from LaPlace, La., had dialed 911 to report that he had been in an accident at the Evelyn Gandy-Leeville Road intersection and needed an ambulance. Minutes later, a white Petal Police Officer shot Davis three times, killing him and later claiming that Davis had attempted to take his weapon.

On Wednesday, the Petal Area Chamber of Commerce pronounced the officer, Aaron Jernigan, the “2020 Officer of the Year.”

“Valerie Wilson with the Petal Area Chamber of Commerce dropped by to present a plaque to Officer Aaron Jernigan for being the 2020 Officer of the Year. Congratulations Aaron!,” the Petal Police Department wrote in a Feb. 17 post that included a photo of Jernigan in uniform accepting a wood-mounted plaque.

The award comes after last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests drew national attention to Davis’ death, which had attracted little notice even among state media previously.

‘I’m Going to Show You How Real My Child Was’

After the 2017 shooting, Officer Jernigan claimed Davis had grown erratic as he approached him after arriving on the scene and that he had tried to take his weapon.

Others have provided conflicting accounts of what happened that day, though, including a witness who disputed the official story in an interview with the Mississippi Free Press, saying that no one had interviewed her about what she had seen.

The Petal Area Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors includes, as an ex-officio member, the town’s mayor, Hal Marx. The mayor sparked last spring’s protests outside city hall there after comments he 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. 

Marx also baselessly claimed that Floyd likely “died of overdose or heart attack” and lamented in another tweet that “police are being crucified” by the swell in Black Lives Matter protests.

A young girl joined calls for Petal Mayor Hal Marx to resign at a protest last Friday. Photo by Ashton Pittman

Residents of the largely suburban Forrest County town that calls itself “The Friendly City” raged at their mayor in a packed, raucous town hall meeting afterward, and 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.” Marx’s final term as mayor ends this June.

A year after Marc Davis’ death, in June 2018, Mayor Marx told the Hattiesburg American that he was “confident that our officer did nothing wrong.”

The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation conducted a probe of Davis’ shooting in 2017 and reported that it had found no wrongdoing on Officer Jernigan’s part. MBI is currently investigating a recent police shooting in nearby Hattiesburg where a Black teen survived multiple non-fatal gunshots in January, but MBI has released little information about the shooting in the weeks since.

Marx’s remarks on George Floyd’s death last year kicked off days off protests at Petal City Hall last May, where Catherine Davis, wearing a shirt that depicted her son with angel wings, publicly denounced Marx.

“I’ve got pictures. I’m going to show you how real my child was. How he mattered. He mattered,” his mother told the crowd on May 30, 2020, as she retrieved a sheet of photographs from an envelope, holding up one of a small girl named Leah. She wore yellow ribbons in her hair and a white graphic t-shirt that featured a photo of father in the center beneath a pink-candy-stained collar.

“This is his youngest baby at his funeral. We were getting ready to leave the grave site. She didn’t want to go. She kept saying, ‘Granny.’ She wanted her dad. She knew he was in that box. She wanted him out,” Davis’ mother said. “ … Marc had the biggest laugh, the biggest smile. He was the joy of our lives. But unfortunately, when we needed his smile and his laughter the most, on the day he was killed, it wasn’t there.”

‘I Fired Three Shots Into Mr. Davis’

Less than a month after Davis spoke, on June 26, 2020, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a civil suit that Davis’ widow, Yoshanta Albert, filed against the City of Petal and the officer who shot Davis. The dismissal affirmed a September 2019 ruling by U.S. District Judge Keith Starett for the Southern District of Mississippi that Petal Police and Officer Jernigan were justified in shooting Marc Davis.

Starrett’s ruling cited witnesses who they helped subdue Davis after he allegedly charged at Jernigan. The witnesses said Davis then stood back up and began moving toward Jernigan again, ignoring the officer’s warning not to come any closer, at which point the officer fired his weapon.

“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.”

Leah, one of Marc Davis’ children, stands near his casket on the day of his funeral, wearing a shirt with her father’s photo on it and the words, “Earth’s Loss, Heaven’s Gain.” Photo courtesy Davis family.

In a June 2017 police statement, Jernigan said that Davis had “been acting a strange manner” from the moment he arrived at the site of the car crash.

But last year, Brittany Jefferson, a white witness who was a 20-year-old college student at the time of the shooting, provided the Mississippi Free Press with a conflicting version of the final moments of Davis’ life. Neither police or any other media had interviewed the witness about the incident. 

After Jefferson stopped her car for the red light at the Evelyn Gandy-Leeville Road intersection, she said, she saw a Black man lying on the ground and two white men and a white police officer standing next to a blue Buick SUV.

“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 own June 2017 statement, Bryan Lee, a white man, said he shouted at Jernigan after the officer fired the shots, “Why did you have to shoot him? We had him.” 

Later, in a sworn affidavit in 2019, Lee explained 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.”

Davis’ family has raised questions about why the city had no dashcam footage or footage from cameras at the intersection to clear up conflicting reports about what happened that day. Neither Mayor Marx nor the Petal Police Department responded to requests for comment from the Mississippi Free Press last year.

Mayoral Candidate Praises Jernigan’s ‘Work Ethics, Values’

After Officer Jernigan accepted the Petal Area Chamber of Commerce’s “2020 Officer of the Year” award on Wednesday, several candidates for local office offered their congratulations, including Jake Wilson, who is one of four Republican candidates running to replace Marx as Petal’s new mayor.

“Congratulations to Petal Police Department Officer of the Year for 2020, Aaron Jernigan,” Wilson wrote in a Facebook post today. “Officer Jernigan was selected by his peers and has displayed the work ethics, values, and dedication required to earn such a coveted title. Thank you so much for your leadership and service to this community.”

Wilson did not mention the 2017 shooting.

Marc Davis called 911 after getting into a car crash at the Evelyn Gandy-Leeville Road intersection, where Petal Police Officer Aaron Jernigan says he shot the man following a violent confrontation. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

Like the 13 candidates vying for positions on the Petal Board of Alderman, all four mayoral candidates are running as Republicans for the April GOP primary. Early voting begins next Monday.

In a Feb. 10 statement on his decision to run for mayor, Wilson said he wants more “transparency” and accountability in city leadership.

“The buck truly stops with me. When something happens in Petal, it is on me. No finger pointing, no blame game… I own it, and I work with my team to fix it,” he said. “Leadership is about listening, influence, integrity, and treating everyone with dignity and respect. This is how I will lead us forward as a city.”

‘Infiltrate These Good Ole Boys’

When Catherine Davis spoke out about her son’s death last May, she urged residents to vote for “responsible leadership” that “will represent you” and “glorify your district.” But the nation also needs federal action, she said.

“There needs to be a federal task force that will look immediately (into police shootings), not wait until local authorities have had the opportunity to put their dirty hands in something. Immediately you move in and begin your investigation,” she said on May 30, 2020.

An undated family photograph shows Marc Davis smiling at the camera.
“Marc had the biggest laugh, the biggest smile. He was the joy of our lives. But unfortunately, when we needed his smile and his laughter the most, on the day he was killed, it wasn’t there,” Catherine Davis said of her son, Marc Davis (pictured), at a May 2020 protest at Petal City Hall. Photo courtesy Davis family.

The bereaved mother called on the activists present to “infiltrate these good ole boys.”

“They say they’re sorry for what happened to George Floyd. Well, get off your sorry behind and go into your office and write some legislation,” she said, referring to members of Congress.

Davis then offered a message to George Floyd’s family.

“Mr. Floyd, to your family, I hate to admit this, but I know your pain. I know your pain,” she said. “And I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. I wouldn’t wish it on Mr. Marx and his family.”

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