Colom: “We cannot allow this case to disappear in darkness”

BY BRIAN JONES

Attorney General Lynn Fitch is dropping manslaughter charges against former Columbus Police Department officer Canyon Boykin.

Boykin was indicted by a Lowndes County Grand Jury for manslaughter in 2016 for the October 16, 2015, shooting death of Ricky Ball. Boykin, along with then-officers Max Branch and Yolanda Young, pulled over a car in which Ball was a passenger. Ball fled, and Boykin shot him – he alleged that Ball pointed a gun at him. Ball continued to run, despite his injuries, eventually collapsing between several houses along 14th Avenue North.

A handgun the belonged to then-CPD officer Garrett Mittan was found beside the body. Mittan, who was one of officers on scene that night, claimed that it had been stolen from his home in a burglary.

None of the officers involved in the shooting had their body cameras on when the confrontation took place.

Boykin was fired by the city for violating the department’s body camera policy, for having his then-girlfriend in the police car as an unauthorized ride-along, and for posting offensive and racially insensitive material on social media. District Attorney Scott Colom, then newly elected, decided to hand the case over to the state to prosecute to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

The AG’s Office released a terse press release on May 28 stating that the charges would be dropped.

The move comes as protests against the slayings of unarmed African-Americans by police sweep the nation.

Colom called a press conference Friday morning to talk about the dismissal. He said the timing of the decision was horrible, said that he found out about it from local activists before he was told by the AG, and said that he intends to put as much of the evidence from the case as possible up on his web site so that the public can judge for themselves what happened.

Colom said Friday morning that he had not seen the filing asking for the dismissal.

“I have not seen the filing or the paperwork to know what justification they gave,” he said. “I found out about it from some local activists who called me, and then sometime (Thursday) afternoon someone from the AG’s office called and notified me.”

The Ball shooting happened while Colom was campaigning for the position of district attorney against longtime incumbent Forrest Allgood.

“I remember going to a forum at Hunt school and people asked me what I thought about it and I said I thought there should be a grand jury investigation,” Colom said. “When I was elected the attorney general was Jim Hood. I got to know the people in the Public Integrity Unit, and we had some conversations about how to handle officer-involved shootings, and how sensitive they were and how we could make sure that people in Columbus feel safe.

“I really trusted that the AG’s office would do the right thing as far as following the evidence and following the facts,” he said. “I made the decision to transfer the case to the AG’s office and to let them present the case to a grand jury. When I did that there were certain conditions on it. The agreement was that there would be a grand jury investigation and if there was an indictment it would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. It was indicted, and since that time I’ve followed it through the news and through the courthouse just like other people and I know that there have been several attempts to dismiss the charge by the defendant, and those attempts were always denied.

“In 2019 Jim Hood ran for governor and was not successful,” he said. “Lynn Fitch became the attorney general, and the people I had talked to about that case no longer work for the attorney general’s office. New prosecutors were assigned to the case. As a district attorney I am not going to criticize that decision without knowing the factual basis for it. Nobody has told me why they dismissed the charges. I don’t know if they’ve gotten new information in or if there was some reason they felt like they ethically could not go forward. Hopefully that information will come out, because we deserve more than a two-paragraph press release about a case this sensitive.

“The timing of this dismissal could not have been worse,” he said. “With what’s going on across the country, with the events in Minnesota where somebody appears to have been murdered on camera, with the situation in Georgia where a person was chased down by private citizens and shot and killed, if you pay attention to social media or to the news at all you can tell that people are very upset. I feel like this was terrible timing to dismiss the charges. It was very insensitive to the people of Columbus and the people involved in this case.

“There should have been a better way to do this,” he said. “Part of the problem you have with a dismissal and a two-paragraph press release is that it’s done in the dark. People don’t know what the reason is that they dismissed the case. People don’t get to examine the evidence for themselves. They don’t get a chance to see if this was a judgment made on the facts and the law. The AG’s can’t go through their reasoning on every case, but this isn’t every case. This is a case that caused a lot of people concern. There were a lot of questions about what happened, particularly about the gun found near (Ball’s) body that belonged to an officer that was on scene. That is a serious question, and if you dismiss a case with very little explanation then it further creates distrust within the community for law enforcement and it makes it harder to prosecute cases. Our criminal justice system is based on trust, and without trust it cannot work.

“What I think the AG has to do to make sure this community understands why it was dismissed after five years is they have to as soon as possible release all the evidence, pre-indictment, post-indictment. I am going to send them a letter this afternoon asking for the evidence as soon as possible, and as soon as I get it I’m putting it on my web site for everybody to see. We cannot allow this case to disappear in darkness. We have to let people see the evidence for themselves. On a case like this everybody needs to make a decision for themselves. That is my number one priority right now is to get the entire case back from the AG, and subject to privacy concerns I am going to release whatever I can release. That is a step in the direction of transparency, which is key for rebuilding trust.”

Colom said the request from the AG is not one that can be denied.

“Once the AG makes the decision to not prosecute the case, it is not a situation where the judge can disagree,” he said. “The judge cannot force the AG’s office to prosecute. It’s over. This is not something the judge can control. Some people asked me on social media if I can reopen the case. If it was dismissed with prejudice, it’s over. Double jeopardy attaches, and it’s over. If it’s dismissed without prejudice, the only way the case can be presented to the grand jury again is if there is new information that the previous AG didn’t have. You can’t grand jury shop and just take a case to a new grand jury.

“I wish there was more I could say or do to comfort the Ball family,” he said. “I can only imagine what they’re going through in a situation where they have had to wait four or five years to see if there’s going to be justice, or at least a trial to see what the evidence is. A new AG comes in and all of a sudden there’s a dismissal, that’s not going to build trust in the criminal justice system. I will do everything in my power to get the evidence out to the people, because they have a right to see it for themselves. When it comes to a case I transfer to the AG’s office, there has to be some communication from them. Now there’s a new regime, and we can’t have cases handled this way. They are too important and too sensitive. We can’t have cases dismissed like this with no real heads-up. I had somebody call me last night and tell me that they thought this was a gut punch. It would have been much better if they had known why. It is not normal for cases to be dismissed after an indictment. That is the part where I feel like we have got to get more information.”

Colom said he is not aware of any legal deadline that required the decision to have been made right now.

“The courts can’t even have juries until the 15th,” he said. “I don’t see a legal reason for this to be done right now. Boykin is out on bond, so you don’t have to worry about him being detained. There is no push, they didn’t file a motion for a speedy trial. The defendant has been trying to get this dismissed since the beginning, and the previous AG’s office fought it. The judge kept denying it. I can’t think of a legal reason to do it right now.

“If they had asked me I would have told them not to do it right now and not to do it the way they did it,” he said. “You’ve got to give people the reason and the evidence why you’re dismissing a case like this, particularly at a time when distrust of law enforcement is at its height.”

The lack of transparency is damaging to law enforcement, he said.

“I don’t expect us to have riots over this, I really don’t,” he said. “Even if we don’t have one riot or one protest, some people are not going to trust the justice system after this. They are going to witness a shooting and say they don’t know what happened. We have shootings with hundreds of people there, and no witnesses. We have got to do our part to have trust, because so much of the criminal justice system is based on trust. You’ve got to have trust to report crimes, to get evidence about crimes, to bring indictments, to get convictions. If people do not trust you it’s basically a house of cards. My concern is making sure the evidence is public so people can decide for themselves. The citizens need to be able to make up their minds themselves.”

Colom said that he felt like local officials should have been given some warning.

“If I had been the AG and I was going to dismiss a case like this, I would have spoken to the local district attorney, to the police chief, to the sheriff, to the mayor, weeks in advance,” he said. “Then you can get some advice from the local elected officials for what is the appropriate way to do that. Don’t do it in a two-paragraph press release. You can have a hearing for a dismissal. I would have had a hearing, I would have put on evidence, I would have put out the videos, I would have let the people see the reason for my decision.

“Some people will say that I transferred the case to the AG and so lost my ability to do that,” he said. “All I can say is hindsight is 20/20. At the time I transferred it there were people I knew and trusted handling the case. I don’t anticipate they ever would have dismissed the case and told me about it afterwards.”

Colom said he wanted to get the evidence from the AG’s officer within 10-14 days.

“The case is closed, as far as they’re concerned,” he said. “There is not nearly as much legal justification for withholding it. My goal is to get the letter to them today. We need to get it out there as soon as possible. This can’t be something where six months from now we’re still waiting. I want to get it out there in 10-14 days. Everything that does not involve privacy laws I’m going to put on my web site so people can make up their minds for themselves.”

Colom said body camera footage, especially, should be released.

“There’s been a lot said about the officer not having his body camera on at the time of the shooting, which would have told us what happened,” Colom said. “There are other officers who arrived on scene and were there when Ricky Ball’s body was found, and they did have their cameras on. So there is some body camera video of what occurred that night. That would be important because then you would see the officers arrive on the scene and find the gun on camera. There’s a lot of controversy about the gun, and we need to get the information out there because people need to know there wasn’t a cover-up.”

Colom said now that the case is closed the evidence should all be public record.

“Unless they can find some exceptions I’m not aware of,” he said. “My whole thing is that I hope that by me taking the lead on getting the information that it will be smooth and we can get it out there. I hope they will understand the necessity to bring some transparency to the decision-making.”

It will take actions, not words, to rebuild trust with the justice system, he said.

“I don’t think there’s anything I can say that will alleviate the pain and the distrust that some people are feeling,” he said. “What I will have to do, what (Police Chief Fred Shelton) will have to do, what (Mayor Robert Smith) is going to have to do, what the city council is going to have to do, is earn their trust.”