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Officers take stand for policeman accused of killing man in backyard shooting

Crime Watch

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IDAHO FALLS — A jury that consists of 14 people has been picked in a trial that began Monday for an Idaho Falls Police officer accused of shooting and killing a man last year.

Elias Aurelio Cerdas is charged with felony involuntary manslaughter after he allegedly shot Joseph “Joe” Johnson in Johnson’s backyard during a February 2021 manhunt. A grand jury indicted Cerdas in July and the Idaho Attorney General’s Office is prosecuting the case.

RELATED: Trial set to begin for officer accused of killing man in backyard shooting

There are seven women and seven men on the jury. The trial for Cerdas is expected to last at least seven days. Jury selection was completed by noon and a few people, including Cerdas’s wife, observed proceedings.

After jury selection, the defense and prosecution made opening statements in front of Judge Darren Simpson and witnesses were then called.

The Idaho Falls Police Department previously said the incident began with a traffic stop. A Bonneville County Sheriff’s deputy pulled over Tanner Shoesmith for a broken taillight a few blocks from Johnson’s home. When Shoesmith ran, a manhunt followed, with more deputies and officers flooding the neighborhood.

Police say a resident spotted the suspect running through a yard and believed he was carrying a gun. That information was conveyed to officers on their radios. As police searched for Shoesmith, they learned he had several warrants for his arrest and a violent history with law enforcement, including a warrant for felony battery on an officer.

The first witness who took the stand was Idaho Falls Police Officer Spencer Wood. He explained that he spoke to Johnson before the incident and asked him if he had seen the suspect. Johnson had said no and Wood said Johnson then went back into his home.

Wood did not tell Johnson to stay in his home but said he meant to tell him.

“Things were unfolding rapidly,” Wood said on the stand. “I was primarily focused that there was an armed suspect nearby.”

A short time later, GPS coordinates from Shoesmith’s phone placed the suspect in Johnson’s backyard, leading police to surround the home and draw their weapons. As officers moved in, police said they heard yelling and then found a man — Johnson — carrying a gun. Officials say Johnson was wearing a black shirt — the same color as the suspect — when Cerdas pulled the trigger.

“Officer Cerdas did what he was trained to do. What he did that night was based completely on his experience and his training,” said Dennis Wilkinson, an attorney for Cerdas. “He thought it was the suspect. He didn’t know.”

Wood explained the events of that evening and said he heard yelling so he jumped over a fence to try and help his fellow officers. That’s when he saw someone on the ground.

“At first, I believed him to be the suspect…but he did not have shoes or socks on…and that did not fit what we were told…” Wood said.

Wood said that’s when he noticed the man who had been shot was Johnson.

Officer Stetson Belnap with the Idaho Falls Police Department took the stand as a second witness. Body camera footage played in the courtroom and showed Belnap giving Johnson lifesaving measures after officers said in the footage that he had a gunshot wound to the chest. The video showed Johnson not moving, pale and had blood on his chest area.

In the video, Belnap performed CPR but officers found no pulse. Belnap explained on the witness stand that he initially thought Johnson was the suspect at first.

“What we just watched was a tragedy,” said Curtis Smith, an attorney for Cerdas in regards to the body camera footage.

Two Bonneville County Sheriff’s deputies were also called to the witness stand before court adjourned for the day.

More witnesses are expected to be called on Tuesday. EastIdahoNews.com will continue to provide updates on the trial.

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