It's been almost seven weeks since Donnie Pearson told Albuquerque Police detectives that he and his 15-year-old son jumped into Pearson’s SUV—where he kept his loaded handgun—and set out to investigate a report of a strange man brandishing a gun by his neighbor’s house.
A few minutes later, that man, 23-year-old African American Iraq War veteran Jonathan Mitchell would lay dead from a gunshot a few feet from his back door. Mitchell lost his life after Pearson pulled up to his house and the two exchanged gunfire. Mitchell shot first.
Mitchell’s older brother Aaron Mitchell, who is a police officer in the state of Florida, said that he believes his brother died at the hands of a vigilante: “Pearson had no business driving around at 11:23 at night with his 15-year-old son looking for an armed assailant. Why they haven’t charged Pearson is unbelievable to me.” He said the violent crimes investigators bought Pearson's version of events because of their “preconceived notions” about his brother. “Before they knew he was an Iraq War veteran, they treated him like he was a prowler that didn’t belong in the neighborhood," Aaron said.
Albuquerque Deputy Police Chief Allen Banks said he understands the family’s anguish but said their assertion couldn’t be further from the truth. He insisted that APD’s violent crimes detectives are thoroughly investigating the shooting to learn exactly what happened the night Pearson shot and killed Jonathan Mitchell.
University of New Mexico sociology professor Maria Vélez said this case illustrates society’s tendency to overestimate the relationship between race and crime. “I think what happens is we are quick to judge someone who is minority and assume some sort of problematic behavior rather than give that person the benefit of the doubt,” said Vélez. She said these assumptions persist because “it is difficult to change people’s fears about minorities.”
Banks said he sees how one could mistake this case for a Trayvon Martin-type incident—as the family believes Pearson killed Jonathan while taking the law into his own hands. “The unfortunate part is everybody doesn’t have all the information needed to draw a conclusion,” he said. When asked what he says to critics who say Jonathan would be alive if Pearson had called the police instead of intervening, he replied, “We don’t know that. We can what-if all day long … had he called the police he could be ... had he not called the police, maybe another incident would’ve occurred—we can what-if it all day. What I tell critics is 'allow the information or the facts to play out and go from that point.’”
George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin as he returned to the house he was visiting after a trip to the store. Zimmerman—who initially avoided prosecution because of Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law—has publicly said he followed Trayvon because he “looked real suspicious.” However, in that case, officials ultimately caved to public pressure and filed charges.
The deputy chief was quick to point out the biggest difference between the cases: “Trayvon Martin wasn’t armed, and in this case, Mr. Mitchell was armed,” Banks said. “Does that justify it or make it better? It doesn’t.”
The fatal chain of events started around midnight on Tuesday, March 19. Ventana Ranch resident Jose Beltran told police that when he came home from work, he saw a man with a gun in his driveway. So instead of parking, he drove away and called his family to warn them. One of Beltran’s family members then called Pearson and told him about the armed man. After receiving the phone call, Pearson told police he and his son drove to Beltran’s home to check on his welfare. By the time Pearson arrived, Mitchell had returned home and—after circling the block several times—Pearson’s investigation led to Mitchell’s front door where a shootout ensued. Pearson—who is licensed to carry a concealed weapon—told police, and APD video confirms, that Jonathon Mitchell fired at them first. Pearson’s return fire struck Mitchell in the shoulder.
Jonathan’s younger brother Benjamin said, after the shooting, he and his brother ran out the back door because they thought they were under attack, but they only made it as far as the neighbor’s yard before Jonathan collapsed and died. Benjamin says APD made matters worse by leaving him handcuffed for several hours while he was detained for questioning—without medical attention, bathroom access or a phone call. Banks said APD detectives took Benjamin to the hospital to have his injuries checked out after his statement was taken, and he denies claims of excessive detention.
Once the investigation is complete, the case will be forwarded to the District Attorney’s office for a final determination of what—if any—charges to file.