LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - An Angelina County grand jury decided to "no-bill" a Lufkin police officer who shot and killed a man who was on top of his victim attempting to cut his throat on March 1.
The no-bill decision came early Tuesday evening. The decision means the special called grand jury determined Officer Blake Witherspoon will not face criminal charges.
"The incident involving 6-year veteran Officer Blake Witherspoon was presented to the grand jury today, resulting in a no bill," a press release from the Lufkin Police Department stated. "A 'no bill' means the grand jury concluded that Witherspoon acted appropriately in the line of duty and that they saw no grounds to indict him on a criminal charge."
The man killed in the officer-involved shooting incident was identified as Epthen Johnson, 40, of Lufkin. Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace Billy Ball signed the inquest, which stated that Johnson died in the emergency room at CHI St. Luke's Memorial Hospital.
The press release stated that Johnson's toxicology report confirmed that he was high on PCP and marijuana at the time of the attack.
Lufkin Police Chief Gerald Williamson thanked the grand jury for their service.
"Grand juries are a vitally important part of our criminal justice system – one more component that ensures our citizens are the ones making the ultimate judgment when deadly force is used," Williamson said.
Williams said it was clear to him that the grand jury was diligent and thoughtful in how they handled case.
"An officer's desire is always to save life and prevent injury, but a sad reality is that we sometimes have to take lethal action to preserve or protect the lives of others," Williamson said.
The press release stated that Witherspoon, who had been reassigned to the criminal investigations division per department policy pending the grand jury's decision, will return to patrol duty next week. Witherspoon has been with the Lufkin Police Department since 2011.
Police say at around 1:20 a.m. on March 1, an officer responded to a stabbing in progress call in the 600 block of Kurth Drive just outside of Jones Park after a 911 call about a man "being knifed to death." The victim's screams can be heard in the background of the 911 audio, and "the caller urges the dispatcher to get a med unit and officer en route quickly."
The witness used strong language in his initial 911 call. According to the press release, he later called 911 again and apologized for his language, saying, "The cop had to shoot the one dude who was stabbing him."
According to a press release from the Lufkin Police Department, Officer Robert Blake Witherspoon's body cam showed that Johnson was on top of his victim, Jose Isabel Rodriguez, 32, attempting to cut his throat when Officer Robert Blake Witherspoon "discharged his duty pistol, resulting in Johnson's death."
"The officer loudly attempted to get Johnson's attention and commanded him, 'Let me see your hands' multiple times before taking lethal action," the press release stated.
The press release gave a narrative of what happened in Witherspoon's body cam video.
"The officer shouts at Johnson "'Let me see your hands' multiple times, but Johnson fails to acknowledge the officer's presence and continues the stabbing attempts," the press released stated. "The officer then fires three shots and pauses to see if Johnson stops his assault. Johnson is unfazed by being shot and the officer's additional attempts to get his attention. He continues stabbing at the screaming man. The officer then fires a fourth time, stopping the assault."
In the moments after the shooting, Witherspoon tells Rodriguez, 'Hang on, man. Hang on" several times in an effort to calm him down, the press release stated. Then the video shows the LPD officer doing a "combat breathing technique "to slow his heart while he is waiting for other officers to arrive on the scene.
"Rodriguez later told officers that he prevented Johnson from fatally stabbing or cutting him by gripping the blade of Johnson's knife, evidenced by several lacerations to his hand," the press release stated. "He said that just before the officer arrived, he began to tire from the fight and doubted his survival."
Rodriguez, who was taken to Woodland Heights Medical Center for treatment, suffered a shallow stab wound near his belly button, a deep cut above his left eye, defensive wounds to his hands, scratches on his neck, and abrasions all over his body.
Johnson had four prior arrests in Angelina County dating back to 1999, including one for a charge of aggravated robbery in 2000. He was last arrested in November of 2016 on a bond surrender for delivery of a controlled substance.
According to the press release, the Lufkin Police Department's leadership, the mayor, the city council, and the three Lufkin PD chaplains - Randy Brown, Ray Vann, and M.E. Lyons - all reviewed the body cam footage.
"City council has a legal obligation to the city to review the video to dispel rumors among their constituents," Williamson said. "The three police chaplains, who are sworn members of the department, were also shown the video to better assist our officers with their mental and emotional health in the coming days."
The press release stated that the incident is only the Lufkin Police Department's fourth officer-involved shooting in the last 30 years. The other three incidents involved armed suspects, and they occurred in 1992, 2000, and 2010.