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Grand jury clears Medford police officer in May 31 shooting

A Jackson County grand jury Wednesday ruled Medford police Cpl. Tom Venables was justified in using deadly force when he shot and killed James Anthony Morris after a May 31 confrontation on La Loma Drive.

District Attorney Beth Heckert said Venables, a patrol officer who has been with the Medford Police Department since 2002, fired approximately 15 shots after Morris, 40, advanced on him carrying a 9 mm Glock pistol. As Morris came toward Venables, he reportedly raised his gun and told the officer, "I'm going to make you do this," according to a three-page report released to the media by Heckert.

Venables, who had taken cover behind his patrol car parked in the middle of the street, fired first, followed by Morris, whose gun jammed when the shell casing lodged between the gun's slide and its chamber in a "stovepipe" malfunction, Heckert said.

"Mr. Morris did fire at officer Venables, but his gun jammed," she said. "From the first shot to the last shot was about 24 seconds."

During that interval, as the shots were being fired, the report says, Morris "advanced approximately 67 feet toward Corporal Venables." The report said that prior to the shots being fired, Venables could "clearly see the gun" in Morris' right hand and that the officer "loudly shouted to Mr. Morris for him to 'drop the gun' multiple times."

Morris sustained five gunshot wounds to his face, lower chest and buttocks, the report said. Venables didn't learn that Morris had fired at him until after the shooting, the report said. Some of the bullets fired in the exchange struck nearby residences.

Venables had been the first officer to respond to the area after Morris' girlfriend reported around 10:41 p.m. May 31 that he was suicidal and had left their home on Juanipero Way armed with a gun. Heckert said Morris had given his girlfriend a letter before leaving the house, refusing to say if it was a suicide note, and retrieved the handgun from his car, telling her he was going to "kill the cops." In the note, Morris gave her passwords to his electronic accounts, permission to sell some property and asked her to care for his dogs, the report said. 

Heckert said Morris, who had purchased the Glock 34 legally May 29 from a licensed dealer, hadn't expressed any interest or familiarity with firearms prior to the incident.

"Under Oregon law, he was eligible and passed the background check," she said, explaining that there was nothing in Morris' background that would have prevented him from purchasing the gun.

Heckert said investigators later found a black bag in the trunk of Morris' car containing an additional ammunition magazine and the factory packaging for the gun.

The incident was MPD's third fatal shooting in a year, all of which involved men reportedly in the midst of mental health crises.

"You don't get a whole lot of second chances, second opportunities when firearms get involved," said Chief Tim George, who said his officers are doing their best to handle what law enforcement agencies have described as a massive increase in mental health-related calls. "We (recently) took 10 to 11 people into custody for mental health holds in one three-day weekend. Everyone's in a concerted effort to put their best foot forward."

Heckert said the entire incident was captured by the motion-activated video camera on Venables' Dodge Charger patrol car, footage from which was reviewed by a use-of-force expert from the Washington County Sheriff's Office who testified before the grand jury.

The district attorney said the grand jury deliberated for less than five minutes before finding Venables' use of force justified.

Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471, or by email at tmoriarty@mailtribune.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.

Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert tells the media that a grand jury ruled Wednesday that Medford police Cpl. Tom Venables was justified in using deadly force when he shot and killed James Anthony Morris in a May 31 confrontation. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell