Crime

Jury deadlocks on 3 counts against cop who shot at autistic man, acquits on misdemeanor

Testifying in his own defense, North Miami Police Officer Jonathon Aledda insisted he honestly mistook an autistic man holding a silver toy truck for a gunman holding another man hostage. The soft-spoken officer said he had no choice but to fire three bullets, accidentally hitting Charles Kinsey, the supposed hostage.

One sole juror did not believe Aledda.

The other five voted to acquit Aledda of all four charges in a case that garnered international headlines amid intense scrutiny on U.S. police shootings. But after a full day of deliberation, jurors on Friday could not reach a unanimous verdict on three of the four counts, leaving a Miami-Dade judge to declare a mistrial.

The jury did acquit Aledda of one misdemeanor count of culpable negligence for shooting at the autistic man, Arnaldo Rios Soto.

Miami-Dade prosecutors must now decide whether to retry Aledda on two counts of felony attempted manslaughter and one count of culpable negligence. While not an outright victory, Aledda’s camp was buoyed, knowing they were so close to an acquittal.

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North Miami Beach Police Officer Jonathon Aledda leaves the courtroom after a mistrial in the shooting of a severely autistic man’s caretaker in 2016. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

After the decision, in the hallway outside the fourth-floor courtroom, jury foreperson Mario Alberto Lopez walked up to Aledda and shook his hand.

“My apologies for not being able to clear you today,” Lopez told him.

The foreperson, with three other jurors, stuck around with Aledda and his supporters. The apparent holdout, an older Hispanic man, strode away, declining to comment.

“I think he acted like a reasonable police officer should have in such a nerve-wracking situation,” Lopez told the Miami Herald afterward. “I thought he was not guilty from the moment he took the stand.”

The hung jury in the Aledda case came three years after the July 2016 shooting, which unfolded against the backdrop of a series of controversial killings of black men by police around the United States. The shooting also roiled North Miami, leading to the ousting of the city’s police chief and the firing of the commander on the scene.

Rios’ family and Kinsey are also suing the city of North Miami.

Rios, then 26, is a severely autistic man with the mental capacity of a child. He had run away from the MACtown group home and sat down in a busy intersection. Kinsey, his caretaker, was trying to usher him back home when a motorist called 911, believing the silver toy Rios was holding might be a gun.

North Miami police officers rushed to the scene, surrounding the two men. Kinsey thrust his hands in the air, begging police not to shoot, loudly yelling that Rios had a toy, not a gun. Among the key evidence: Bystander video of the confrontation showing Kinsey lying on the ground, his hands up in surrender.

The scene commander radioed that the man appeared to be “re-loading.”

Aledda fired his M4 rifle. Kinsey was shot in the thigh and survived, although fragments of the bullet remain embedded in his body. Rios was unharmed.

Prosecutors said Aledda was not justified in shooting at Rios from a half-a-football field’s length away.

During the two-week trial, a host of North Miami police officers who responded to the scene testified that they did not think that the autistic man appeared to be a threat. The two cops closest to Rios and Kinsey said they had concluded that the shiny object was not a gun — and one had even relayed his belief over a police radio transmission.

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Taking the witness stand Wednesday in his own defense, North Miami Police officer Jonathon Aledda holds a toy truck that he says he mistook for a handgun before he shot an autistic man who was holding the truck. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

But Aledda, 32, testified that he did not hear the dispatch because he had a shoddy department-issued radio. Taking cover behind a black car, Aledda said, he saw Rios turn the shiny object toward Kinsey on the ground.

“At that point, I had to fire my shot. I thought the black male was going to get executed,” Aledda told jurors, adding: “My heart was pounding out of my chest. I’ve never been in the position to take a life to save another.”

But prosecutors said Aledda should have known Rios was not a threat. They said no other witnesses saw Rios turn the silver toy toward his caretaker.

“With a lot of power and authority also comes a lot of responsibility. The shots Jonathon Aledda fired were not a misfire,” Miami-Dade Chief Assistant State Attorney Don Horn told jurors on Thursday during closing arguments. “Each shot was intentional while he was trying to kill Arnaldo Rios Soto. Each shot was unnecessary and unreasonable.”

The outcome was a disappointment for the office of State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who has been criticized for not having charged any police officers for on-duty shootings since she assumed the post in 1993.

Florida law gives police officers wide leeway to use deadly force, even allowing them to shoot a “fleeing felon” if they believe the person may be a threat to the community. Few officers in Florida have been charged, let alone convicted, for on-duty shootings.

Rundle, in a statement soon after the mistrial, said “our community has been traumatized” by Aledda’s shooting and the mistrial showed “the difficulties” of the case.

“My prosecution team and I will be discussing the case to determine the appropriate course of action as to the unresolved counts,” she said.

Aledda’s defense attorney, Douglas Hartman, said he was “disappointed” the officer was not outright acquitted. “We’ll try the case again,” he said.

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