A Tragic Crash, but Was It Murder?
Semi-pro football player Cedric Mitchell was driving to practice on June 7 when he says he lost consciousness. “I remember blacking out,” the 35-year-old told Truthdig from the county jail in Twin Falls, Idaho, “and coming back to when somebody was taking me out of my truck.”
Mitchell had been going 75 to 79 miles per hour in a 30-mile-per-hour zone, according to police reports. His truck slammed into the back of Dwayne Steiner’s 1997 Dodge Ram, throwing both cars into oncoming traffic, where they collided with more vehicles. Mitchell was airlifted to a hospital in Boise, while Steiner and his wife, Maryann, were taken to a hospital in Twin Falls. Maryann Steiner died of her injuries two days later.
According to prosecutors, witnesses heard Mitchell say, “God take me. I want to die.” Idaho State Police put him in custody.
“They told me in jail that somebody had passed away,” Mitchell said. His wife, Tiffany, said he was devastated when he found out the collision had cost Maryann Steiner her life. Cedric Mitchell has been in jail since that day.
As previously reported in Raw Story, Mitchell is charged with first-degree murder in Maryann Steiner’s death and several counts of felony aggravated battery in the injuries of others in the crash. In Idaho, first-degree murder is punishable by death or life in prison. Prosecutors contend his actions were purposeful, with no evidence that he tried to brake or swerve before the collision, maybe as a suicide attempt.
Cedric maintains it was an accident and that the pursuit of the first-degree murder charge against him is driven by racial animosity, as evidenced by the community reaction on social media and past experiences in town. Cedric Mitchell is black and his wife, Tiffany, is white. But prosecutors think they can prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he drove into another other car to kill himself and that this makes him a murderer.
He maintains his innocence. “I wouldn’t hurt a butterfly,” he told Truthdig.
At a hearing at the end of October, a judge set his bond at $2 million. “No way,” Tiffany Mitchell said when asked if the family could afford to bring Cedric home to prepare his defense. She is struggling to take care of their eight kids, working as a health care worker at two jobs, including a night shift. “I’m barely making it now.”
At the hearing, prosecutors said they wouldn’t seek the death penalty. Tiffany is relieved, but the other option is not particularly helpful to her family. “Life without parole is the same to our babies,” she says.
It’s impossible to know for sure what was going on in Cedric Mitchell’s head as he drove that day. But both he and his wife claim he wasn’t suicidal.
Suicide-by-vehicle happens, but it’s rare. In 2017, more than 50% of suicides were gun-related, 27.7% involved suffocation and 13.9% were poisonings. Cuts, falls and “other injury” registered in the single digits.
Cedric had not left a suicide note and Tiffany does not recall anything seeming off when he chatted with her on the phone that day. He set off for football practice like any other afternoon. Even according to the worst-case scenario of a suicide attempt gone wrong, it was not a targeted, premeditated killing. Cedric said he did not know the woman who died and had no motive to end her life (the prosecutor said he was not claiming Cedric knew Maryann Steiner).
The Mitchells contend Cedric Mitchell had some kind of a medical emergency that led him to pass out. He suffers from a host of health issues like obesity, high blood pressure and asthma. Tiffany raised the possibility that he might have Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the disease that afflicts football players who suffer multiple blows to the head. Cedric started playing football at the age of 7. He played through high school, two years of college and then semi-pro, with the Magic Valley Bulldawgs in Jerome, Idaho. “Offense, defense, a lineman,” he recalled of the positions he played throughout his life. The symptoms of CTE range from memory loss to personality changes — -at their most severe, sufferers might experience seizures and dementia.
Medical records obtained by Truthdig show that Cedric had encephalopathy, a symptom of CTE.
Dr. Daniel Daneshvar, researcher at the CTU center at Boston University, cautioned that encephalopathy — which can roughly be thought of as ‘disease of the brain’ — is not 100% indicative of CTE, which can only be diagnosed when a sufferer dies and their brain can be studied. It’s similar to how a fever is a symptom of an underlying cause, which might be anything from the flu to some rare tropical disease.
Daneshvar said blacking out is not among the most common diagnostic criteria for CTE, but it’s possible. He also pointed out “there are other health reasons [for which] he might have blacked out or not remembered what happened.”
Another theory that makes far more sense to Tiffany is that Cedric passed out when his blood pressure spiked. According to a medical report released after the incident, his blood pressure was 220 over 120. Blood pressure measuring 180 over 120 is considered a hypertensive emergency. Cedric is a very large man. Tiffany said she thinks he passed out and his foot weighed down the gas pedal.
Despite an inconclusive medical report, prosecutors appear determined to put Cedric Mitchell in prison for life.
It’s not like he would face no consequences — after all, a woman died. But states have many other laws on the books to punish drivers who cause a traffic fatality. For example, California’s vehicular manslaughter charge is a misdemeanor, carrying no more than a year in prison.
There are recent comparisons in Idaho of how traffic fatalities are punished in the courts. For example, a pickup driver in Blane, Idaho, killed three girls while driving drunk over the summer. He was charged with three felony counts of vehicular manslaughter and two of aggravated DUI, according to the Idaho Statesman. Another fatal car crash in August led to the death of a woman. Officials found meth and heroin in the car. So far, the defendant has been charged with drug possession. In July, a 7-year-old-boy was struck and killed while riding his bike and the driver has yet to be held accountable for his death.
Cedric and Tiffany Mitchell believe he’s being unfairly targeted because he’s black in a predominantly white area. “There’s no other type of accident that’s happened in the past that’s been charged this way,” he pointed out.
They have plenty of reason to be suspicious. After Mitchell was arrested, the family was bullied on social media in strikingly racist language.
“Just take him out and hang him, that’s what he deserves,” wrote the wife of a deputy sheriff with the Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office.
“He should be linched (sic) on main and Shoshone at high noon!” another man said.
It’s not the first time the couple has run across racism in the town.
“When I’m out with my family, we get a lot of stares, people speaking under their breaths,” Cedric said.
“Our kids have been called nigrets. It’s awful,” Tiffany said. “Our daughter gets called Afro girl. She was only 10 when someone on the bus called her a ‘black bitch,’” she recalled.
The couple met in Phoenix, where Tiffany was scoping out a new place to live because she was sick of what she saw as pervasive racism in Twin Falls, Idaho, a town of 42,741 that’s 92% white and Native Americans slightly outnumber black people. Right after they met, Cedric came to visit her in Twin Falls. They started a relationship that quickly turned serious. Despite the racist sentiment they sensed in Idaho, they opted to have him relocate there because the weather was better for his asthma. He got a job at a sugar factory and they got married.
Tiffany recalled an incident in which she and Cedric went on a date at a diner and an older white couple walked in. They headed to sit in a neighboring booth, but when the man saw Cedric and Tiffany, he froze, yanked his wife away and sat at the very opposite end of the restaurant. Tiffany said she’s been called a “mud shark” and that people have said her husband is only with her because her family has money—which they don’t.
Tiffany’s first husband, Cody Hanks, who was white, was shot and killed by a police officer while he was on meth. When Tiffany married Cedric, he was happy to take over fatherly duties for his adopted kids. Tiffany and Cedric had three kids of their own, creating a large, interracial family. “My 3-year-old talks in his sleep and says, ‘Can someone find my Daddy?’” Tiffany said.
“I’m exhausted. And still struggling to make sense of this or prepare for our future,” she said of the family’s day-to-day life and her efforts to cover the astronomic legal bills from Cedric’s case.
“It’s been almost four months since these charges came,” she said. “And I still just don’t understand.”Wait, before you go…
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