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Horse-trainer's death raises tensions in Mississippi. Was race a factor?

A black horse trainer was asphyxiated during a confrontation with a white police officer. Some are asking race a factor in the killing, which has now been ruled a homicide.

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    In this July 11, 2015 photograph, sign of support for Jonathan Sanders, a black man who is believed to have died after a physical encounter with a white police officer, hangs on a corner in Stonewall, Miss. A couple hundred people participated in a prayer vigil and march in Stonewall, on Saturday.
    Jennifer Bozeman/The Clarke County Tribune, via AP
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It's a tiny little memorial in the yard of an aging mobile home in a down-on-its-luck Mississippi mill town. Poster boards with votive candles form hearts, there are silk flowers and red, white and blue balloons. There's a sign demanding "Justice 4 Jonathan."

Here on Artesia Avenue is where Jonathan Sanders died after 10 p.m. on July 8, following a physical encounter with a white police officer for the town of Stonewall. What happened that night when Sanders – a 39-year-old black man riding in a two-wheel buggy pulled by a horse – crossed paths with Kevin Herrington – a 25-year-old part-time officer – is intensely disputed.

Lawyers for the Sanders family and witnesses who live in the mobile home say Herrington engaged in an unprovoked attack on Sanders after the two saw each other at a convenience store a mile across town. C.J. Lawrence, the lawyer for three witnesses, said Sanders was doing nothing illegal and didn't resist while Herrington choked him to death.

A lawyer for Herrington, though, said the officer found Sanders with what appeared to be illegal drugs. Sanders and Herrington struggled in the grass and Sanders grabbed Herrington's gun from his holster, only to drop it in the grass, attorney Bill Ready Jr. said.

Trying to sort out the facts are the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the FBI. Herrington is on unpaid leave and left town on a family trip, Ready said. Sanders' survivors – including a mother, sister and two children – buried him Saturday.

Authorities are asking for calm while they finish investigating. But there were already two protests last weekend attended by hundreds in this town of 1,100 near the Alabama line.

Another protest is planned Sunday, as attorneys for Sanders' family paint his death as part of a larger nationwide struggle over police brutality against black men, and they see it as part of the unfinished civil rights movement in Stonewall, a town named after Confederate general Stonewall Jackson.

Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the Sanders family lawyer, said authorities told relatives that an autopsy found he died from "manual asphyxiation" – strangulation. He said the manner of death was homicide, not accidental.

A spokesman for MBI said the agency doesn't discuss ongoing investigations.

The autopsy finding doesn't necessarily mean Herrington committed a crime and accounts so far leave unanswered questions: What triggered the encounter? Was Herrington using necessary force, or was Sanders the victim of an overly aggressive officer?

And at a time when police departments are under intense scrutiny for treatment of black suspects, did race play a factor?

Stonewall doesn't have cameras in police cars or on officers, putting the focus on witnesses. Clarke County Sheriff Todd Kemp said one witness is Rachel Williams, a jail guard in neighboring Lauderdale County.

Lawrence, the witnesses' attorney, won't confirm her name, or describe the others, except to say they are related and also distantly related to Sanders by marriage. Lawrence said the witnesses sought lawyers because they fear for their safety. Lawrence is a law partner of Lumumba, the Sanders' family attorney.

Also present at the time of the death were Herrington and his wife, Kasey Herrington, who was riding that night in his police car.

The lawyers for the witnesses relayed their accounts to The Associated Press but said they did not want to talk directly with reporters: The witnesses say Herrington drove up behind Sanders and flashed his blue lights, causing the horse to rear. Sanders fell off the buggy and chased the horse, while Herrington ran up and grabbed Sanders by the strap of a headlamp he was wearing that had fallen around his neck. They say Sanders fell to the ground in a fetal position, trying to relieve pressure on his neck but otherwise not resisting, while Herrington lay atop him and put him in a chokehold.

The attorneys said one witness went outside and pleaded with Herrington to release Sanders. He refused until his wife retrieved his gun. Then Herrington directed his wife to radio for backup. When Herrington finally released Sanders, witnesses say he was unconscious and that blood came out of his mouth.

Ready disputes significant parts of that account. He said a struggle began after Herrington found Sanders with drugs and Sanders tried to run.

"It is my understanding that Mr. Sanders fought back and actually grabbed the officer's gun," Ready said.

He also said that Sanders outweighed Herrington, making it hard for the officer to subdue Sanders. He said Herrington did not intend to harm or kill Sanders.

"This was just an unfortunate result of an encounter between him and Mr. Sanders," Ready said.

State investigators have so far only described what happened as a physical "altercation."

Lawrence said his witnesses deny Herrington found drugs, or that Sanders grabbed the officer's gun. He and Lumumba say Kasey Herrington retrieved the gun from her husband's holster while he restrained Sanders.

Sanders has a history of drug troubles. He was convicted in December 2003 for selling cocaine and went to prison until May 2007. He was arrested again in April for allegedly possessing cocaine. A lawyer who was representing Sanders said authorities were trying to seize his Chevy Tahoe and some cash. Ready noted that if Sanders had drugs, his bond on the earlier charge could have been revoked and he would have had to stay in jail until the charges were resolved.

Herrington has been described as both an excellent police officer and a "Rambo" who held a grudge.

He graduated from a police academy in nearby Meridian in December 2013. Until last week, he was working occasional shifts in Stonewall and two nights a week in neighboring Enterprise. Ready said he also has a full time job as industrial worker, but wouldn't be more specific.

Enterprise Police Chief Joey Moulds said Herrington is a conscientious officer who kept on good terms with people – even after he'd written them citations.

Moulds said there were few complaints about Herrington and said he was very non-confrontational.

"I would have to put him at the top of the list. He's the most humble person I know of, extremely humble, extremely responsible," Moulds said.

But Eddie Crosby, who lives near Enterprise, thinks otherwise. Crosby said Herrington pulled him over multiple times this year to the point where Crosby felt Herrington was harassing him. He wrote a complaint to Moulds and the mayor and complained in a letter published in April by a local newspaper. He didn't include Herrington's name – describing the officer only as a "Rambo" type – but confirms he was referring to Herrington.

Afterward, Crosby said Herrington would flash his police lights at him and recently ticketed him for rolling through a stop sign.

"If he got it in for you he was going to have you," Crosby said. "I could understand the first time but you just don't stop somebody and make up an excuse."

Friends of Sanders describe him as a horse-lover who made a living buying, training and selling the animals. He lived next to his mother on a wooded side-road. Clifton Follins, the neighbor, said Sanders's two children didn't live with him but frequently visited.

"Ever since he's been big enough, he loved those horses," said Follins, 69.

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