Richland County Coroner Gary Watts on Tuesday will hold a rare inquest hearing to get to the bottom of what happened on the night of May 25, when three Columbia police officers shot and killed a 21-year-old man in the back yard of a north Columbia home.
A six-person jury will be seated to decide whether the three officers were justified in the shooting death of Ajani Mitchell.
Mitchell’s mother called police to the Conveyor Street home twice in one day, saying that she was afraid of her son and that he was armed. The second time police arrived, Mitchell ended up dead.
The coroner’s inquest will be held in a courtroom at the Richland County Courthouse, with Watts presiding. He will be assisted by Joanna McDuffie, a prosecutor in the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office.
A coroner’s inquest is a seldom-used legal tool that allows South Carolina coroners to investigate law enforcement agencies. Watts, who has been coroner for more than 12 years, has held four inquests.
An inquest provides transparency to investigations and allows the public to get at the truth behind law enforcement’s actions, Watts said.
“When you have a police-involved shooting, everybody questions it,” he said.
Watts said he called for the inquest after receiving numerous calls about Mitchell’s death and reviewing a report from the State Law Enforcement Division, which is investigating the shooting.
Mitchell was killed during a standoff with the officers that started after a woman called 911 to say her son had threatened her and had a gun at her house between North Main Street and Farrow Road, about two miles northeast of Columbia College.
It was the second time that day that officers had responded to a call from the woman. In the earlier call, she told police that she had argued with her son, who was armed and acting strangely, according to police incident reports. Police confiscated the gun that afternoon but couldn’t find Mitchell, police have said.
That night, after the second call, police found Mitchell with a different gun in his hand. He jumped over a backyard fence and officers chased him, according to reports. Mitchell was shot multiple times after he refused to follow officers’ commands to drop his weapon, Columbia Police spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said at the time. Officers felt threatened and opened fire, she said.
The three officers, who have not been named, continue working at the police department, Timmons said.
Mitchell was born in Virginia Beach, Va., but was educated in Richland County public schools, according to his obituary in The State. He was working at V.V. Reid Elementary School when he was killed. The obituary said Mitchell was an aspiring writer who enjoyed acting and music. He is survived by his parents, Dennis Mitchell and Tyra K. Little-Mitchell, and two brothers, Oji and Damani Mitchell.
Watts was on the scene when Ajani Mitchell was shot.
The SLED investigation, which is routine procedure when a police officer kills a suspect, remains open, said Thom Berry, the agency’s spokesman.
The inquest’s procedure will be similar to a criminal trial, except the jurors are allowed to ask questions, Watts said. They will hear testimony from the more than 40 people who have been called as witnesses, and they will examine evidence.
The jurors then will decide if someone should be held responsible for the death. If they decide someone should be held responsible, then the case is sent to a grand jury, Watts said.
Outcomes in Watts’ previous inquests have gone both ways, with jurors sometimes finding fault and at other times upholding a law enforcement officer’s decision to use force.
In 2004, an inquest jury found a Richland County sheriff’s deputy was acting in self-defense when he shot and killed 19-year-old Chad Jones, who was driving away in a patrol car while handcuffed.
In 2005, a jury said the health care providers at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center were responsible for the suicide of a mentally ill inmate. The verdict did not identify specific people who cared for the inmate, but the company that provided jail health care was blamed and fired, Watts said.