Shooting ruled suicideBy TOM GIAMBRONI
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LISBON - The shooting death of a handcuffed man while in the back of a St. Clair Township police cruiser has been ruled a suicide by Columbiana County Coroner Dr. William Graham Jr.
Graham said he reached that conclusion in the death of Jason E. Miller after receiving a report back from the state crime lab showing only Miller's DNA was present on the handgun's grip and trigger.
The 38-year-old Miller died Sept. 12 after he reportedly shot himself with his brother's handgun while in police custody in the back of the cruiser following his arrest on a warrant for failing to appear in court. Miller, of McDonald Street, St. Clair Township, was patted down by one of the two officers at the scene and then handcuffed before being placed in the back seat of the cruiser.
While an officer was going through his jacket, they heard a popping sound and discovered that Miller had been shot. His hands were still secured behind his back with the handcuffs. No other details were released pending the results of the coroner's ruling.
Graham said the analysis performed by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation included taking DNA samples from the two police officers and matching them against the DNA found on the handgun.
"Their DNA was checked and it didn't match (either of the officers), so that proves he wasn't shot" by them, he said. The handgun tested positive for Miller's DNA, as mentioned above.
The .357-caliber Ruger found laying on the back seat of the cruiser next to Miller was stolen earlier the same day from his brother's home, although authorities didn't know it at the time. The handgun was found to have four live rounds and one spent round.
Miller was shot through the mouth, and although no gunpowder residue tests were performed by the state, there was visible evidence of gunpowder on him, Graham said.
Columbiana County Sheriff Ray Stone, whose office was called to the scene by St. Clair Township police to conduct the investigation given the circumstances, said they believe the officer missed the presence of the handgun on Miller when he was searched, which occurred after dark. While the officers were outside the cruiser, Miller was able to grab the handgun, work his manacled hands to the side and turn his head before shooting himself.
"That's what the evidence is indicating," he said.
According to Stone, it isn't unusual for handcuffed suspects to be able to move their arms around with a certain amount of freedom, especially depending on their build. Miller was 5-foot, 2-inches tall and weighed 153 pounds.
St. Clair Township Police Chief Don Hyatt was obviously relieved the investigation cleared his department of any wrongdoing and he described the shooting as a "tragedy."
"While this is a tragedy, you can't forget that this is something that will stay with these officers as well. It's a tragedy all the way around, for everyone involved," he said.
As for the officer who missed the handgun during the search, Hyatt said no disciplinary action was taken because he followed procedure. The officers patted Miller down and handcuffed him properly. "You just can't get that invasive in the field when you're doing searches," he said.
Although rare, this scenario has occurred with other police departments. There is a police training video of an actual incident involving a suspect taken in for questioning who pulls a gun from his waistband hidden under his shirt and commits suicide after the detective leaves the room. This was captured by a surveillance camera.
The evidence now will be turned over to the county prosecutor's office for the purposes of being presented to the grand jury, which Stone said is normal practice
"Any death has to be run past the grand jury, and now that the evidence is in that's what will be done," he said.