Midtown Raleigh News

DA will not pursue charges against deputies in death of mental health patient

Wake County’s district attorney on Monday announced that his office would not pursue criminal charges or initiate a criminal investigation against county deputies who fatally shot a mental health patient in March after he fled in a patrol car.

Colon Willoughby was awaiting a report from the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation after the March 31 death of Jonathan Lee Cunningham, who was killed by Wake County sheriff’s deputies.

The deputies fired four gunshots that killed Cunningham just after 8:30 a.m. when he tried to escape from involuntary commitment by fleeing in a stolen law enforcement vehicle.

“Based on my understanding of the SBI report, I believe criminal prosecution is not warranted,” Willoughby said late Monday afternoon. “Based on all the information, I don’t think it was a criminal matter.”

An autopsy report also showed that deputies deployed a Taser to subdue Cunningham, 35, of Durham.

On March 31, Wake County deputy Jeremy Pittman arrived at the Wake County Crisis and Assessment Center to take Cunningham to Old Vineyard Hospital in Winston-Salem, a nearly two-hour trip.

Twenty minutes into the trip, Cunningham attempted to overpower Pittman, who then stopped the car near Lake Boone Trail on Interstate 440, according to the sheriff’s office. The fight spilled from the car onto the roadside, where the deputy slipped in mud, apparently giving Cunningham a chance to take the car, the report states.

In the ensuing pursuit, officers from the Raleigh Police Department, Morrisville Police Department, State Highway Patrol and Wake County Sheriff’s Office chased Cunningham west along I-40 to I-540, driving faster than 80 mph at times, according to the sheriff’s office.

Cunningham drove near the Leesville Road exit before losing control of the car and driving into the woods off the right side of the road. Officers overtook him as he ran from the scene, leading to a fight in which he “actively” resisted officers, according to the Sheriff Office’s account.

According to the autopsy report, pathologists found a probe from a Taser in Cunningham’s lower right back. He was shot four times – in the right side of his back, through the left shoulder and twice in the upper chest. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

The Sheriff’s Office placed two deputies, Matthew Johnson and Dusty Mullen, on administrative duty after the incident while the SBI investigated, which is standard practice when an officer is involved in a shooting.

Willoughby said the sad undercurrent surrounding Cunningham’s death is that the significant number of people with mental health problems “often find themselves in the criminal justice system.”

“The criminal justice system is not a good place to assist them,” he said.