COLUMBIA — A Columbia police officer Tuesday told a six-person coroner’s jury how he and another officer shot and killed a 21-year-old man pointing a gun at them in a residential neighborhood in the north part of the city.
“We were yelling for him to, ‘Stop! Police! Drop your gun!’” testified officer Matthew Fields, on the first day of a rare coroner’s inquest into the May 25 incident.
At that point, Ajani Mitchell, 21, was straddling a chain link fence trying to flee from the officers, Fields said.
As Mitchell was atop the fence, he turned and aimed his pistol at Fields and another officer, Adam Anderson, Fields said.
“When I saw the gun, Officer Anderson fired first, and I fired second,” Fields said.
“I squeezed the trigger very slow so by the time I got off my five shots, the subject was down on the ground,” Fields said.
“Until he quit moving, we kept firing.”
The two officers then did what Fields called a “tactical reload,” ejecting what was left of their 17-round clips from their semi-automatic pistols and immediately replacing them with a new clip.
Then, with Anderson covering Fields, he leaned down over the fence and picked up Mitchell’s gun, lying a foot or two from his all-but-lifeless body. Pictures of the body shown the jury underscored the senseless tragedy: the dead Mitchell, wearing khaki shorts, a plaid shirt and sneakers, was sprawled in a position suggestive of a youth taking a nap.
Fields was one of some dozen or more witnesses who testified Tuesday at the Richland County courthouse. The inquest continues Wednesday.
The other officer who fired, Anderson, gave a version of events that paralleled Fields’.
“When he pointed the gun at me, I thought he was going to shoot me. So I shot first,” Anderson testified.
“If I take the time to think about whether he’s able to fire the weapon, he could have already shot me,” Anderson testified.
The jury can return one of five verdicts on the shooting, including accidental, suicide, unknown, willful felonious homicide or justified homicide.
Early the day of the shooting, Mitchell’s mother had called police to her Conveyor Street home, saying she was afraid of her son and he was armed, other officers testified.
“She said her son had been acting weird since April, when he had converted to Islam. She said she’d had nothing but problems since he converted,” testified officer Chad Newman.
Police who went to the house then took – with the mother’s permission – a MAC-11 pistol from Mitchell’s bedroom, according to testimony.
That same evening, Mitchell got another gun – apparently a Glock pistol – from the mother’s car on Conveyor Street. Police then were summoned again, and that’s when he was killed.
En route, officers were alerted that “the subject” had threatened to shoot police.
Coroner Gary Watts is assisted by Joanna McDuffie and Daniel Coble, prosecutors in the Fifth Circuit Solicitor’s Office.
Watts 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.
The house where the shooting took place is about two miles northeast of Columbia College.
An inquest is something like a trial. However, there are no opposing lawyers cross-examining witnesses, asking questions that could poke holes in testimony. The citizen jurors and coroner have the right to ask questions, but they didn’t ask many Tuesday.