Coroner's jury clears Columbia police in fatal shooting

jmonk@thestate.comSeptember 18, 2013 

Ajani Mitchell


A six-person Richland County coroner's jury ruled Wednesday that the shooting of an armed 21-year-old man by two Columbia police officers was justified.

The jury could have recommended forwarding the case to a county grand jury for criminal charges.

Instead, it found the police shooting of Ajani Mitchell in a backyard in his north Columbia neighborhood on May 25 was justified.

Specifically, the jury found that the two officers, Mathew Fields and Adam Anderson, acted in self-defense in an unavoidable situation, and that a normal person would have acted the same way.

Jurors took less than an hour to reach a verdict after hearing from 18 witnesses over a day and a half at the Richland County courthouse. Jurors' ages ranged from about 30 to over 60; three were white, three were black; three were women, three were men. Fields and Anderson are white; Mitchell was black.

Undisputed testimony by witnesses painted a picture of Fields and Anderson entering a situation in which their 911 dispatcher reported a gunman threatening to shoot police. When the officers arrived at 5805 Conveyor St., a man fitting the gunman's description fled to the backyard.

Anderson and Fields gave chase. Seconds later came shouts and gunfire. Anderson and Fields were the only two eyewitnesses to what happened.

One part of the testimony -- concerning how many police bullets hit Mitchell in the back -- raised concerns by Mitchell's family.

"The family is very disappointed in the outcome. We will continue to pursue justice for Mr. Mitchell and the family," said Columbia attorney Tony Dessausure.

Earlier Wednesday, county chief medical examiner Dr. Bradley Marcus testified Mitchell had been shot 12 times and that most of the 9 mm hollow point bullets struck his backside. Several bullets, including one that severed a major artery, would have been fatal, he testified.

However, under questioning by prosecutor Joanna McDuffie, Marcus said those back wounds were consistent with the officers' explanation.

Tuesday, Fields and Anderson testified Mitchell was going over a chain link fence and he had a gun in his right hand aiming back at them. Using a replica of the chain link fence, they demonstrated to the jury Mitchell's position at the time they fired.

The State Law Enforcement Division found the officers acted appropriately. SLED senior investigator Dave Lawrence testified the officers' version of events supported their claim of self defense. Lawrence said police officers are trained to fire when someone points a gun at them and keep on firing until there is no more threat.

"If an officer is justified in shooting one time, he is justified in shooting X times," Lawrence said.

Testimony by the 18 witnesses over two days told the story of officers called to the Conveyor Street home to respond to a complaint of a man standing in front of a house with a gun.

Before the shooting, Mitchell had been acting erratically, Lawrence testified, and that day told his mother, "I am going to see Allah."

Also that day, Mitchell earlier had vandalized his house and his mother, Tara Mitchell, had found a MAC-11 pistol in his room. Tara Mitchell had called police about the incidents and turned that gun over to police. But later that day, Ajani Mitchell went into her car and retrieved a Glock .40mm. and began saying he would shoot police. That's when Ajani's grandmother called 911 -- the call that Anderson and Fields answered.

The inquest, held by coroner Gary Watts, is different from a regular trial.

Prosecutors Joanna McDuffie and Daniel Coble questioned witnesses, but there was no cross examination by a defense attorney probing for flaws.

Police Chief Ruben Santiago said after Wednesday's hearing he was pleased the case was aired in a public setting.

"The public has a right to know exactly how this happened," Santiago said. But he added, having to shoot Mitchell "will haunt these officers for the rest of their lives ... This is a very tragic and unfortunate situation (and) my heart continues to go out to the Mitchell family."

Fifth Solicitor Dan Johnson said that based on inquest evidence, "The officers responded in the appropriate fashion."

Reach Monk at 803-771-8344

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