People holding sign, Andrew Mitchell and Donna Dalton

The jury deliberated for eighteen hours over three days but could not reach a verdict in the trial of Andrew K. Mitchell for murder or voluntary manslaughter in the death of Donna Dalton (aka Castleberry) in August 2018 during a botched prostitution arrest. Dalton’s family alleges it was a kidnapping by a corrupt vice cop that went terribly awry.

Mitchell can be tried again with a new jury. Franklin County Prosecutor Gary Tyack released a statement. “The State of Ohio will be carefully reviewing all available options to bring finality to this matter and will make a public announcement in several days.”

His next trial for kidnapping and other lesser charges, including witness intimidation, will begin this September in Federal Court. These charges are related to Dalton’s death because the alleged victims were also sex workers. The US Attorney alleges Mitchell kidnapped women under the guise of an arrest and then forced his victims to engage in sex acts for their freedom. He will remain in custody pending that trial.

The five-day trial exposed the underbelly of undercover policing in Columbus. The essence of the debate between the prosecution and the defense was whether Dalton believed Mitchell was an officer conducting a legitimate arrest or was he attempting to kidnap her.

In March 2019, then-Columbus Police Chief Thomas Quinlan disbanded the vice unit where Mitchell was assigned after Dalton’s death and other investigations pointed to a culture of disregard for appropriate police conduct. The public became aware of this corrupt culture when two Columbus vice officers were terminated in 2020 after being found guilty of departmental charges for improperly arresting Stormy Daniels at a local strip club. It was widely believed the officers made the arrest in retaliation against Daniels for going public about her affair with President Trump.

Dalton’s estate sued the City of Columbus and that lawsuit settled out of court for one million dollars. The jury in the murder trial was not told that fact.

The prosecution in Mitchell’s murder trial argued that his plainclothes, unmarked car, and lack of a badge and walkie-talkie caused Dalton to fear for her safety. Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys Daniel Cable and Sheryl Pritchard maintained that everything she did, including cutting his hand with a knife, was proof of her attempt to get away from him.

Mitchell’s defense attorney, Mark Collins, argued that her actions, including using her foot against his neck to keep him away, were proof of her intention to harm him and that he had no indication that she would not continue to harm him to the point where he feared for his life. This allowed for his use of deadly force as a police officer to be reasonable under Federal and Ohio case law.

Because undercover vice officers record their encounters with potential suspects, there is a full audio recording of the incident which was played many times for the jury. Because Mitchell parked next to a building with security cameras there is a fuzzy video of the exterior of the car.  A prosecution witness who specializes in forensic audio/video analysis synced up the two recordings and enlarged the view of the car.

Both sides called expert witnesses to the stand to help the jury understand the use of force standards that officers use to conduct their arrests. They, of course, had differing opinions. In their closing arguments, the attorneys focused on discrediting each others' experts and their testimonies.

The attorneys also disputed how much weight the jury should give to Dalton’s own words, as heard in Mitchell’s audio recording. Collins reminded the jury that every expert agreed that actions speak louder than words. Cable reminded the jury that they were to take into account her entire demeanor, and that would include what she said.

Statements like: “Get your hands off of me!” “I’m sorry!”  “Open the back door!” “Call the police!” played over and over again for the jury to hear during the trial.

Collins often reminded the jury that Dalton had cocaine and fentanyl in her body when she died. 

Dalton’s words on the recording were sometimes hard to make out. Even people who had been in court every day and had heard the recording numerous times were hearing new information during the closing arguments, according to their comments in the live Facebook feed.

It was difficult for many of her friends and family members to watch the trial, knowing that the jury would not hear the full story of Mitchell's alleged illegal behavior and that he was not facing the death penalty.

Mitchell took the stand in his own defense. He outlined his entire thirty year career with the Columbus Division of Police. Collins asked him what specific training he received when he joined the vice unit for the first time in 2001.

“How to pick up girls, what to use, how to park your vehicle when you pick them up, what to say to girls, what to say to girls to try to get them to tell you what you want.”

When he returned to the vice unit in 2016 after working in several other assignments, he transferred out of the homicide unit because it offered better hours. He and his wife were adopting a daughter at the time and he wanted to be home in the evenings.

Dalton was a 23-year-old mother of two, making money as a sex worker on the west side of Columbus. The jury heard her question Mitchell about whether he was really a police officer in the moments before he shot her with three bullets. She told him she had seen his picture going around as someone who tried to kidnap women.

He offered to call his “buddy” to prove he was a cop. He showed her a paper ID badge. She didn’t believe him, calling the ID “fake-ass.”

The situation escalated when Dalton used a knife to slash Mitchell’s right hand. The prosecution argued this was a defensive wound inflicted to prevent an attack from a man she did not believe was a police officer. 

The defense argued that it was an offensive wound that she inflicted to harm a man who she knew would arrest her any minute for an outstanding warrant.

But the jury heard the same woman call out to a bystander to call the police for help. Mitchell admitted during his testimony that he, too, wanted the police there. But also testified that he showed his ID to the bystander and reassured him that he was the police, thereby causing the bystander to walk away. 

As the altercation intensified the video shows Mitchell’s car door opening, but he doesn't get out. The prosecution argued that he could have moved away from Dalton and did not need to shoot her to protect himself. Mitchell testified that he doesn't remember opening the door. The prosecution reminded the jury that a reasonable officer in the same situation would have gotten out of the car.

Judge Steven Young instructed the jury to decide on three questions:

  1. Did the prosecution prove Mitchell intentionally cause Dalton’s death?
    1. If yes…go to #3
    2. If no….go to #2
  2. Did the prosecution prove Mitchell knowingly cause Dalton’s death after she provoked him?
    1. If yes…go to #3
    2. If no…acquit on both charges
  3. Did Mitchell’s defense prove he….

A.  Killed her at a moment he was afraid for his own life?

B.  Acted in a manner that other reasonable police officers would in the same situation, based on several criteria enumerated in case law?

  1. If yes…acquit on both charges
  2. If no…convict on Murder (#1 above) or Voluntary Manslaughter (#2 above)

The jury sent a note to the judge at the end of their second day of deliberations which claimed they could not resolve a disagreement regarding 3)B -- considering whether Mitchell was acting in a reasonable manner comparable to other officers in the same situation.

In the larger debate surrounding homicides at the hands of police officers, this is the most difficult question: How are cities training their police officers to use lethal force? Because currently the law has no definition about what they are allowed to do, other than considering what they already do.

This is a huge question to ask one jury of twelve under-informed people to answer. It seems reasonable that they couldn't do it.

Another reasonable jury had the same trouble earlier this year in the Federal Civil rights case of Adrienne Hood v. City of Columbus regarding the death of her son, also caused by bullets fired by a Columbus Division of Police plain-clothed officer. The retrial of that case begins Monday.