Father of man killed by police found not guilty of attempted assault after confrontation at 2020 protest

The jury found Aaron James guilty of two lesser counts.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Aaron James is arrested by Cottonwood Heights Police during a march Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Cottonwood Heights, Utah after police said he tried to assault an officer. A jury on Wednesday acquitted him of the attempted assault charge but found him guilty of two misdemeanors.

Aaron James had taken part in a protest in Cottonwood Heights on August 2, 2020, as a way to remember his 19-year-old son Zane, who was shot and killed by police in 2018 after he allegedly robbed two grocery stores.

The march was intended as a peaceful event meant to honor Zane. But it ended with a confrontation between police and protesters — and Aaron’s arrest, after police said he tried to assault an officer.

On Wednesday, a jury acquitted the father of the attempted assault charge. He was found guilty of misdemeanor crimes of interfering with an arresting officer and walking on or along a roadway and sentenced to three months probation. He also was ordered to pay a $730 fine.

Nine people were arrested on August 2, 2020, at the protest against police violence in Cottonwood Heights when police clashed with protesters. Among the arrestees were Aaron James and his son Gabe Pecoraro.

At the time, Cottonwood Heights Police Chief Robby Russo said that three of his officers were injured.

Although there were no issues when the march began, after about an hour, “hundreds” of people joined, took to the streets and started “blocking the roadways and not letting people go to and from their homes around the neighborhood,” Russo said, and the interactions between officers and protesters escalated.

According to a lawsuit filed by Aaron and his wife Tiffany against Cottonwood Heights, officers ordered the protesters to move, saying they were blocking streets, but there was no traffic that was impacted by the protest.

Video footage from the protest shows police and protesters yelling at each other after police tried to make protesters get out of the street. Police can be seen tackling and pepper spraying protesters during the confrontation.

During the commotion, an officer grabbed Pecoraro from behind by his head and neck, according to the lawsuit. Unaware that the person “who assaulted him” was an officer, Pecoraro did not “submit” to the officer, according to the lawsuit. He was then stunned with a Taser.

The arrest left Pecoraro with a concussion, a broken nose, deep abrasions, damage to his esophagus and post-traumatic stress, according to the lawsuit.

When Aaron James approached the officers to get an explanation about what was happening to his son, police tased him and beat him with a baton, the lawsuit states.

Russo said the actions of the large group of protesters spurred the call for officers to respond. He described the people demonstrating as “rioters,” and said some were there to “create havoc.”

In May 2021, the Utah Attorney General’s office ruled that response by Cottonwood Heights police during the protest was “measured and appropriate.”

Aaron and Tiffany James’ lawsuit remains in district court.

In February, Salt Lake County prosecutors reopened the investigation into the 2018 fatal shooting of Zane James, six months after court documents revealed the Cottonwood Heights officer who fired had first caused Zane, who was fleeing on a motorbike, to crash before the shooting.

It marked the first time District Attorney Sim Gill has formally reopened a police shooting case in his 12-year tenure as Salt Lake County’s top prosecutor.

In May, Gill concluded the officer wasn’t legally justified in hitting the teen with his police car. But Gill said he wouldn’t file charges against the officer because he didn’t have enough evidence to show Davies “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly” hit James.