District Attorney clears deputies in shooting investigation from February chase

Published 6:59 pm Thursday, July 22, 2021

SALISBURY — The Rowan County District Attorney’s Office has cleared Rowan County Sheriff’s deputies of any criminal wrongdoing in the February death of James Edward Coe.

The incident occurred on Feb. 17, when Coe, 28, of Salisbury was found dead with multiple gunshot wounds in a wooded area near I-85 and Julian Road following a chase and shootout with deputies. Although Coe was struck in the back by a bullet consistent with those being fired at him by law enforcement, the cause of his death was determined to be suicide.

The ruling comes after an investigation conducted in conjunction with the State Bureau of Investigation.

“We have concluded that the evidence indicates that the deputies acted lawfully and did not violate any criminal laws,” the report from the District Attorney’s office stated.

At the time of the incident, Coe was wanted by sheriff’s deputies for outstanding warrants for a number of charges. One of those charges was felony fleeing officers that resulted from a Feb. 1 chase in Rockwell, and another was for a robbery in Virginia. Previously, Coe was convicted of breaking and entering a motor vehicle and was out on bond at the time of the chase for possession of a firearm by a felon.

Deputies were surveying a home on Jacob Bost Road where Coe was believed to be at the time. After deputies observed two individuals leaving the residence in a truck and seeing the vehicle commit traffic violations, they attempted to pull over the vehicle. The driver failed to stop and deputies pursued the truck, which struck another vehicle and eventually stopped in the area of Julian Road and I-85. The passenger in the truck, later identified as Coe, exited the vehicle and shot at deputies with a rifle, shattering the glass in the deputy’s windshield. 

Deputies returned fire as Coe fled into a wooded area. 

“In general, a law enforcement officer, or any other person, is justified in using deadly force if the officer or person reasonably believed that he or another person was in imminent danger of great bodily injury or death from the action of the person who is shot,” the district attorney’s report said. “It is lawful for an officer to take action before it is too late to repel a deadly attack.”

Assisted by other law enforcement agencies, deputies established a perimeter around the area of West Ritchie Road and the I-85 ramp. As deputies issued commands to Coe in the woods, they heard a gunshot and found him with a .22 rifle in his hand and a single gunshot wound to his head. According to an autopsy, that self-inflicted gunshot wound caused his death, not a .40 caliber bullet found in his right upper back that was consistent with the bullets shot from one of the deputies’ firearms.

The driver of the truck, 23-year-old Devin Alexander Cornwell, was arrested without incident. He later told investigators that he arrived at the residence to pick up Coe and that Coe brought a bag with a gun. Cornwell said Coe stated that he was going to kill himself after deputies started pursuing the truck. Cornwell remained in the truck while Coe fled into the woods while shooting at deputies.

Cornwell was charged with felony fleeing to elude law enforcement as well as failure to appear. He was out of jail on bond for drug and weapons charges.

About Ben Stansell

Ben Stansell covers business, county government and more for the Salisbury Post. He joined the staff in August 2020 after graduating from the University of Alabama. Email him at ben.stansell@salisburypost.com.

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