Grand jury clears Harrison County deputies in fatal shooting of wanted man

A Harrison County grand jury has cleared deputies of wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of a wanted man during an exchange of gunfire in Gulfport.

Ernie Joseph Lizana Jr. was shot to death Feb. 5, 2018, at 28th Street and 23rd Avenue. The area is a block east of U.S. 49.

He was wanted on an aggravated assault charge, accused of shooting a 32-year-old woman in the throat on 33rd Avenue just after midnight two days earlier, previous reports show. The woman was seriously wounded.

Officers from the sheriff’s narcotics unit and the Coastal Narcotics Enforcement team had received information that Lizana was at a vacant home.

They went to the vacant home, and Lizana fired at them as he was leaving and tried to flee, Sheriff Troy Peterson has said.

The officers fired back, striking Lizana several times.

The deputies’ actions “were appropriate,” the grand jury wrote in a partial report released by the District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday.

“After full and deliberate consideration of all the facts and circumstances .... and the circumstances as they existed at the time of the shooting, the grand jury finds no criminal conduct of behalf of the officers involved from the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department,” the report says.

Lizana, 49, died at the scene.

Peterson said officers include two of his deputies and a Pass Christian police officer who no longer works there.

“They’re all narcotics officers,” Peterson said.

“My guys are asking that they not be identified because it would jeopardize their safety in the communities they work in undercover, and I can understand what they’re saying.”

Lizana had been known for years to fight police and run from them, according to previous statements and documents. Lizana had been arrested on charges that include aggravated assault on a police officer, domestic violence, possession of marijuana and meth, and simple domestic assault.

He was convicted of embezzlement and possession of cocaine from arrests in 2009 and 2013.

He escaped from jail several times, according to Sun Herald archives, including twice in a three-month period in 2000.

He also was accused of kidnapping his ex-girlfriend in April 2016. The woman told deputies Lizana came to her house while she was taking out the trash and forced her into his car.

Lizana was accused of rape in 2007, when Harrison County deputies went looking for him at the wake for his deceased grandmother, a Sun Herald report shows. Deputies’ visit to a funeral home drew criticism from some of the family members.

Shootings involving officers on the Mississippi Coast are investigated by the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, which turns its findings over to a grand jury in the county where the shooting occurred.

Robin Fitzgerald covers real-time news, such as crime, public safety and trending stories. In nearly 40 years as a journalist, her highest honors include investigative awards for covering the aftermath of the fatal beating of a Harrison County jail inmate in 2006 and related civil rights violations. She is a Troy University graduate.