Video: Public Never Given a Clearer Picture of Victim in Fatal Police Crash

Three hours after a pedestrian was struck and killed by a deputy driving a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office cruiser, the chief of investigations made statements hinting the crash victim might have been homeless and potentially suicidal. He was neither.

At a post-midnight press briefing in May, Chief Chris Butler relayed a now-contested witness account to suggest 62-year-old Blane Land might have been homeless. The chief did so 10 minutes before detectives knocked on the door of the Mandarin address listed on his driver’s license, where they found tenants who were renting the residence from Land.

Butler also told reporters Land ran out in front of a rescue vehicle with its sirens and lights on, causing it to blare its horn, then hovered in the center lane before he was hit when he “darted” back in front of the police cruiser. The description prompted reporters to ask if it was suicide and the chief said he was not ruling that out.

By noon the next day, the Sheriff’s Office had obtained video footage contradicting that entire narrative. Detectives knew the footage existed more than an hour before the press briefing started. The video showed that the person who ran out in front of the rescue vehicle was someone else who crossed University Boulevard just before Land did.

The flaws in the initial account and the timeline of the detective work that uncovered them was made clear by a traffic homicide report recently obtained by the Times-Union. The Sheriff’s Office has made no statements correcting the record about the crash since the briefing, even after the investigation was closed on June 9.

Officer Tim James, whose car struck Land, was cleared of wrongdoing in the crash. One day later, he was arrested on charges of beating a handcuffed teenager in the backseat of his patrol car.

The officer had been investigated 11 times when Butler gave a five-minute briefing in which he cast no doubt on the statements of Officer James, the subject of a series of sustained complaints that included lying to his supervisors.

There is no estimated speed listed for James in the traffic homicide report, but it includes statements from James where he said he was in no hurry to get there, going 35-40 mph.

Stacy Land described her brother Blane as a devout Buddhist and an IT entrepreneur who lived in Pensacola and helped care for their elderly parents. To see him described as potentially homeless or suicidal was like losing him twice, she said, questioning why the Sheriff’s Office has not come forth with more information.

“You put the story out there, you need to pull it back,” Land said. “Because that was a harmful story. And they haven’t even made an effort.”

Sheriff Mike Williams said the agency has no policy of issuing follow-up clarifications, in part to protect the investigations. But he said that correcting rumors might be an appropriate step to take if contradictory evidence is found.

Attorney John M. Phillips, who is building a negligence case against the Sheriff’s Office on behalf of the Land family, ignited a public spat over access to public records last month when he shared a $314,000 cost estimate in a viral Facebook post. Phillips had requested all records related to the case as well as all internal investigations of officers from the last 10 years, a task the agency said would take nearly 7,000 hours of work to complete.

Phillips had not yet seen the traffic homicide report when it was obtained by the Times-Union. He said the Sheriff’s Office was reckless in its statements to reporters in the aftermath of Land’s death and has been silent ever since.

Phillips said, “Victims deserve answers.”

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