COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Richland County Coroner Gary Watts is planning a coroner's inquest into the officer-involved shooting death of a 21-year-old Columbia man after an investigation concluded police bullets hit the victim multiple times.
Three Columbia Police officers were placed on administrative leave with pay shortly after one or more of them fired multiple times at Ajani Mitchell on May 25. Multiple gunshot wounds caused Mitchell's death, Watts said.
Watts says he wants to settle any questions about the circumstances of the shooting in a courtroom with witnesses under oath at a hearing in September.
"Because of the circumstances, numerous phone calls that I have received from different community members, questions that have been sort of circulating and rumors that have been circulating about what happened ... [I] just felt like it was better that we go ahead and do something in a formal setting and allow all of the information, all of the facts to come out," Watts said.
Interim Police Ruben Santiago said Wednesday the department invites the inquest. "It's very clear from what the officers have in their statements, it's very clear as far as the 911 calls from the family members," said Santiago. "We know that our officers did what they had to do. This will allow the public to see personally what circumstances surrounded that situation."
Police were called to 5805 Conveyor Street more than once on the day of the shooting. Mitchell's mother called police after she and her son had a fight at the residence that Saturday afternoon. After Mitchell left, his mother called police to pick up an assault rifle she had found in the home.
Police went to the home and confiscated a MAC-10 machine pistol.
The woman called authorities later in the evening to report Mitchell had returned with another weapon, police said.
When police arrived, they discovered Mitchell behind the home. Police say Mitchell ignored repeated commands to drop the weapon.
Investigators say the officers felt in fear of their lives so they opened fire during a foot pursuit.
Mitchell died at the scene.
"The officers were in fear for their lives," said Santiago that night. "This individual had a gun."
"We want them to be trained specifically to handle these situations and that's what happened here. These officers were faced with a threat and they did what they had to do," Santiago said. "That's what's going to make them go home tonight and be with their families."
An online obituary indicates Mitchell was employed at V. V. Reid Elementary School, which is located less than a mile from where he was killed. The private school is governed by a board of directors made up of members of Reid Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the community.
According to the obituary, Mitchell "will be remembered as fun-loving and full of life and enjoying making others happy."
SLED is still investigating the case.
The inquest will take place before six jurors in a Richland County courtroom. Watts will preside over the hearing and a member of the Fifth Circuit Solicitor's Office will be in attendance.
The coroner says the inquest is something that he has been considering since the shooting. He says his decision to proceed does not have any connection to other questions circulating in recent weeks about the operations of the Columbia Police Department.
Watts rarely holds coroner's inquests. In fact, he's only done so three times in 12 years.
In 2004, Watts granted a requested inquest into the death of a black teenager who was shot while in the custody of two white Richland County deputies. The officers were cleared of any wrongdoing.
In 2005, Watts held an inquest into the hanging death of an inmate at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center. A jury found the Detention Center to be negligent.
In 2009, a hearing initiated by Watts led the way to a 20-year-old suicide ruling to be reversed to murder.
The findings of the Mitchell inquest could be turned over to a Grand Jury for possible indictment if that becomes a necessity.
Chief Santiago released a statement following Watts' recommendation for an inquest, saying CPD is a "transparent agency" and they want to make sure the investigation is properly explained.
"The officers are the first line of defense for citizens. That night officers were confronted with a dangerous situation and acted appropriately given the circumstances they faced. We want to make sure the facts of the case are being presented accurately." Santiago said. "We will continue to assist SLED and the Richland County Coroner's Office."
It is unclear if the officers who were involved in Mitchell's have returned to duty. WIS has requested their names and personnel files from the Columbia Police Department.