Shooting suspect pleads

Jacob Roberts, 20, was Wednesday to a year in jail after agreeing to a plea of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the shooting death of former CHS classmate J.T. Mitchell in March 2004. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Eric Butler: CNJ correspondent

While memories of a state football championship will forever surround a group of Clovis High athletes, so will a tragedy.

Jacob Roberts, 20, was sentenced Wednesday to a year in jail after agreeing to a plea of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the shooting death of former CHS classmate J.T. Mitchell,who was 19 when he died on March 20, 2004.

Mitchell and Roberts were in the 2003 graduating class from Clovis High School. As juniors, they were teammates on the Wildcats’ 2001 undefeated state championship football team.

The maximum penalty 9th Judicial District Judge Ted Hartley could have given Roberts under the terms of the plea agreement was 2 1/2 years in prison.

Hartley suspended a year-and-a-half plus one day of the maximum penalty and ordered the defendant to begin his sentence in two weeks.

“What really happened will be debated between the families from now on,” Hartley said. “My decision will not please either side, I don’t think, but this is what I believe is appropriate.”

District Attorney Matt Chandler said he and the Mitchell family were disappointed with the sentence.

“We were pushing for the maximum sentence, and although the Mitchell family doesn’t fully understand the rationale behind the decision, we respect the ruling.”

Chandler said the state-mandated maximum penalty for involuntary manslaughter is too lenient. “The punishment doesn’t fit the crime.”

According to court records, Roberts confessed to New Mexico State Police he pulled the trigger. He told police he did not believe the gun was loaded and did not intend to shoot Mitchell.

Chandler said evidence and eyewitness testimony indicated alcohol played a role in the incident.

Addressing the court, Roberts characterized his relationship with the deceased as being like brothers.

“He’s still my best friend and no one can take that away from me,” said Roberts reading from a letter he wrote to the Mitchell family. “I know it is hard for you to understand the pain in my heart, because I know yours will always be worse.

“Football brought us together as only football players can understand,” he added. “I would go to war with J.T. and I would die for J.T.”

Roberts then turned to address the family directly.

“I am truly sorry to each one of you all,” Roberts said.

Earlier, the victim’s mother, Karen Mitchell, said: “I just can’t understand why a so-called friend would shoot him point-blank in the head.”

“I’ve heard it said that this was an unfortunate accident,” said the victim’s father, Ricky Mitchell. “To me, an accident is unavoidable. This was certainly avoidable and there was ample time to do so.”

Several supporters from both sides, some vowing support for both sides, addressed the court. For Roberts, family members and friends urged a sentence of probation for the defendant.

“There is no evil in his heart. This man is a danger to no one — he does not belong in jail,” said David Briseno, a football teammate of Mitchell and Roberts in high school. “I ask this court to honor a life by saving a life.”

Danny Mitchell, grandfather of the deceased, portrayed Roberts as a “bully.”

“The maximum sentence is certainly not too much for taking the life of another individual,” he said.

Roberts was among a group of people visiting J.T. Mitchell’s trailer on the night of the incident.

District attorney Matt Chandler said that, had the case gone to trial, he would have called witnesses who would have testified that Roberts left a room where Mitchell was shot, saying, “I killed him, I killed him. I can’t believe that I killed him.”

Chandler also contended several at the party said Roberts mimicked the shape of a gun with his hand only minutes before, holding his hand to Mitchell’s head and saying that he would shoot him right between the eyes.

“Unfortunately, he (Mitchell) called the bluff and said, ‘You don’t have the guts,’ ” Chandler said.

Roberts’ attorney, Randall Harris, described the incident differently. He said Roberts was trying to get a gun away from Mitchell when the fatal shot took place.

“It was a very tough case,” Harris said, “but I think it was clear this was a terrible accident.”