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Williamson County sheriff's office files shooting report late

Deputies involved in fatal shooting still not identified.
By Katie Humphrey
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

The Williamson County sheriff's office, which has refused to identify the deputies who shot and killed a suspect more than a month ago, filed a state-required report of the incident a day late, with only a three-line explanation of the shooting.

Two deputies shot Joe Vinson Thornton, 29, on June 16 after he led them on a chase that ended in a cornfield about 12 miles east of Georgetown. Detective John Foster, a spokesman for the sheriff's office, has said that the deputies had "no alternative but to use deadly force," saying Thornton, who was riding on a motorcycle, pulled a handgun.

The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure states that a law enforcement agency must file a report with the attorney general's office within 30 days if a person dies in custody or as a result of a peace officer's use of force.

The statute also says a law enforcement agency director "shall make a good faith effort to obtain all facts relevant to the death and include those facts in the report." The attorney general's form requires an agency to "attach a summary of how the death occurred."

Williamson County's report contains only this description: "Joe Thornton was fleeing from deputies. Thornton stopped and pulled a gun on deputies. Deputies shot Thornton. Fatally wounding him." Sheriff James Wilson said Tuesday evening that the description is sufficient.

"It simply calls for a synopsis of what took place," he said. "I think that pretty much described it all."

The 30-day deadline for the sheriff's office to file the report expired Monday. Sheriff's officials filed the report Tuesday afternoon after being contacted by the Austin American-Statesman, which was seeking the information as part of its coverage of the incident.

Other law enforcement agencies routinely release information concerning officers involved in a shooting. But the Williamson County sheriff's office has refused, saying the incident is under investigation. Officials did release a list of all law enforcement and emergency personnel who responded to the shooting scene, after lawyers for the American-Statesman sent a letter to the sheriff's office.

Wilson said he was still investigating why the report wasn't filed within 30 days.

"I checked. It hadn't been filed. It should've been filed, and we immediately did it," he said, adding that it was hand-delivered to the attorney general's office.

County Attorney Jana Duty said the sheriff's office had not previously filed the report because the Texas Rangers investigating the incident were told by the attorney general's office that they did not need to.

"I guess my question here is, 'Who's really at fault?' " she said. "Because immediately after the shooting happened, the sheriff got the Texas Rangers involved to do their own investigation, to make sure that there's no impropriety that we're investigating our own."

The statute says that "the director of the law enforcement agency of which the officer is a member or the facility in which the person was incarcerated" should file the report.

The Texas Penal Code says that failure to file the report within 30 days is a Class B misdemeanor. A citizen would have to file a complaint before any action would be considered, Duty said, but, "I don't see too many citizens in the county wanting to prosecute our sheriff for being a day late on our report."

District Attorney John Bradley, who also has refused to release information about the shooting, has said that details will be made public Thursday after the deputies' case is presented to a grand jury.

Thornton's autopsy, performed by the Travis County medical examiner's office, was sealed by District Judge Burt Carnes at the request of Bradley's office.

Bradley has said that the information has been withheld because of the investigation and because he thinks the media have been unfair to officers involved in shootings in other jurisdictions.

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