Collage of photos of Donna, Mitchell and someone holding a sign saying "Justice for Donna"

Former Columbus Division of Police officer Andrew Mitchell shot and killed Donna Dalton (aka Castleberry) on the morning of August 23, 2018, shooting her three times. He was a 54-year-old vice cop. She was a 23-year-old sex worker. When he asked her for sex services and she quoted him a fee of $25, he attempted to arrest her. She then stabbed him in the hand with a knife.

The jury that was seated yesterday in his murder trial in Franklin County Common Pleas Court learned before the trial began that those facts are not in dispute.

They will not, however, learn that the City of Columbus settled a civil lawsuit brought by Dalton’s estate for over one million dollars in November of 2020.

They will also not learn that Mitchell is facing trial in September in Federal Court for kidnapping and rape of two other sex workers, witness intimidation, removing evidence, and lying to the FBI. At least two jurors were dismissed during the jury selection process for having knowledge of the charges in the Federal case.

But they will eventually hear from Mitchell himself, as his defense attorney, Mark Collins, told the courtroom on Monday the defendant will take the stand to testify.

Mitchell was present for all the proceedings, escorted by two Franklin County Sheriff Deputies, who removed his handcuffs at his attorney’s request. He was dressed in a dark suit. His bald head and closely shaven white beard and mustache contrasted with his dark bushy eyebrows. He remained calm and silent throughout, rarely talking with his attorneys.

Judge David Young instructed the twelve jurors and four alternates to avoid consuming any news about the trial until they reach their verdict. They will be determining whether the prosecution, led by Assistant Franklin County Prosecutor Daniel Cable, meets the burden of proof for Mitchell's guilt on two charges: murder and involuntary manslaughter. Cable reassured the jury that this is not a death penalty case.

Because Mitchell was working as a police officer when he killed Dalton, the jury will also be asked to determine whether defense attorney Collins meets the burden of proof of the two tests established in the US Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor (1989). First, did Mitchell believe that his life was in danger? And second, did he use the level of force another reasonable officer would have used in the same situation?

Voir Dire – More than just picking jurors

Collins explained these concepts to the prospective jurors during the voir dire phase of preparation. The diverse group gathered in two courtrooms connected by video monitors to answer questions from both sides' attorneys.

The attorneys explained they were looking for experiences or biases that would prevent the people in the jury pool from being impartial decision-makers who would only use the evidence presented at trial.

Prior to each question, the attorneys took the opportunity to educate the jurors on basic legal concepts, often taking the tone of a professor in a college survey class with potential jurors responding to pop quizzes.

“Were you thrown off that the officer was Black, and the sex worker was white?” asked Cable.

He also asked them, “Do police have a higher responsibility to the law?”

Even though the trial had not yet started, each attorney also took opportunities to introduce the group to facts and evidence in the case.

Cable offered, “She was using drugs by the way too. Probably not a shock to any of you.”

Collins shared that his client fired the weapon that took Dalton's life, saying that fact was not disputed.

Opening Arguments

The trial began Tuesday morning at 11 am with a packed visitor gallery causing a small number of Dalton supporters who wanted inside the courtroom to be turned away. After initial instructions from the judge to the newly seated jury, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Sheryl Prichard began her opening argument.

Prichard recounted the sequence of events leading up to Dalton’s death. Mitchell drove his unmarked vehicle to the west side neighborhood known as The Bottoms that morning and saw Dalton apparently looking for a sex customer. He indicated his interest and she got into the front seat of his unmarked car. He turned on an audio recorder and drove to a location she selected. They negotiated a $25 price for her service. He pulled up close to the side of the building blocking her ability to open her passenger door. He told her she was under arrest.

And then Prichard played the recording from the moments that followed. Within seconds several people in the courtroom were sobbing loudly.

First, they heard Dalton accuse Mitchell of lying that he was a police officer. She asked to see his badge, which he did not have. As they were arguing, a man came out of the building, and she yelled to him to call the police. Her screams for help became louder. The sounds of a physical struggle became louder. She screamed, “Do not put your hands on me!” 

Prichard concluded that even after Dalton stabbed Mitchell, he was capable of leaving the car, so was not in any danger of severe injury or death.

When another member of the defense team, attorney Kaitlyn Stephens, presented her opening argument, she told the jury that they will see a fuzzy video from a nearby security camera that, when synced with the audio, will prove that Mitchell was in danger because during the fight Dalton put her back toward the dashboard and her foot on Mitchell’s neck. In that moment, Stephens concluded, he did fear for his life, and therefore, his use of lethal force was reasonable.

That is the fact in dispute.

The trial continues

The trial is expected to take two weeks. The prosecution began presenting their case on Tuesday with a field trip to the corner of South Yale and Bellows, where the homicide occurred, and to the police impound lot where the car is stored.

At least fifty witnesses, mostly employees of the Columbus Division of Police, have received subpoenas to testify at the trial. The defense witnesses are scheduled for next Monday.