David Albert Mitchell might have taken a plea to a lesser charge, but the victim was an 87-year-old woman who had been raped as well as bludgeoned to death and the prosecutor insisted on first-degree murder.
“Had it been offered, I think he would have considered taking a plea to second-degree murder,” says Sid Bell, the court-appointed defense attorney in this 1989 case. “He had no choice but to go to trial and take his chances.”
The deputies investigating the murder of Annie Parks in the tiny coal town of Jenkinjones, W.V., had initially zeroed in on 18-year-old Mitchell because he lived nearby and was known to frequent her house. A number of neighbors felt he was the type who could have done it, but nobody had seen him enter or leave around the time Parks was killed. And there was no blood or other physical evidence linking him to the crime.
What the deputies from the McDowell County Sheriff’s Department did have was a confession that they said Mitchell had made after receiving the standard Miranda warnings. The deputies had written it out for him, as he was incapable of doing so himself. The proof of that came when they asked him to sign his name.
“He printed, ‘D-A-I-D,’” Bell recalls.
Mitchell steadfastly denied ever confessing. Bell put a psychiatric expert on the stand who testified that the defendant’s intellectual capabilities were so limited that he could to have understood the Miranda warnings if the deputies had taken four hours to explain them.
“They actually spent four minutes,” Bell says.
Bell presented evidence that the victim had another regular visitor, a man who had a reputation for becoming alarmingly violent when he was drunk. “We suggested in the defense part of the case [that] he would have been more likely to have done this to the lady,” Bell says. “All the evidence we had was that David was someone she liked and he liked her.”
Bell also suggested that the deputies had been so fixated on Mitchell that they had failed even to consider this other man. The attorney believes that the defense was further helped by Mitchell’s appearance at the time.
“He just looked so young and innocent,” Bell says.
Bell does not recall the jury’s deliberations as having been particularly long. He does remember the reaction when the jurors returned with a verdict of not guilty.
“I think we were all surprised,” Bell says. “I remember patting [Mitchell] on the back and urging him to please never get in this situation again.”
Several months later, Mitchell was arrested for attacking and robbing another woman while burglarizing her home. “This one lived,” noted McDowell County Sheriff’s Deputy Roy Blevins.
Along with a living victim, the deputies had witnesses who had seen Mitchell leave the scene this time. And Mitchell was caught with a handgun that had been stolen from the victim.
“He asked me to get him the best possible plea deal,” says Bell, who was again appointed Mitchell’s defense attorney.
Mitchell pleaded guilty to robbery and was sentenced to 10 years. He was released after eight, but soon was doing another eight-year term for the 2003 abduction of an ex-girlfriend who was also his sister-in-law. She says that he tried to sexually assault her.
“A sick individual as far as sex goes,” she later told an AP reporter.
“I remember patting [Mitchell] on the back and urging him to please never get in this situation again.”
In 2004 police found the remains of a Jenkinjones woman named Barbara Flake, who had disappeared two years before, when Mitchell had still been at liberty. He was named a “person of interest,” but investigators were unable to gather adequate evidence to justify an arrest.
In early January of 2012, a West Virginia deputy working a night shift spotted a figure on a bicycle matching the description of a thief who had been removing copper from area homes to resell as scrap. The deputy ended up following bicycle tracks to a creek bed, where he found Mitchell trying to hide. A records check showed that he was wanted for grand larceny in Virginia, and he spent several months in jail there.
Sometime in the spring, Mitchell headed north to New York. He is believed to have gotten into a dispute on Aug. 20 with two men in Central Park who were smoking pot.
“Mitchell approached to join them, and got into an argument with one of them, who Mitchell threatened with a knife,” an NYPD official reports to The Daily Beast. “That person made a complaint to police the next day on 8/21 but refused to join police in a canvass that we conducted to try to find and identify the perp.”
A man police identify as Mitchell was still lurking in the park two weeks ago, when a 73-year-old bird watcher came upon him. She would later tell police that he was masturbating and that she snapped a picture of him, as women have often done to shame pervs in the subway. Only there was nobody else around here in the park and the man advanced on her.
“What are you doing?” the man demanded, as if she were the offender.
The man demanded the film, but she said it was a digital camera, pretending to delete the image. The man tried to grab her camera, but she broke away. She did not go to the police but she downloaded the photo.
The woman was back in the park nine days later, testing a new camera lens when the same man appeared.
“Do you remember me?” he asked.
She said she did not, though she certainly did, but her answer did not likely have anything to do with what he did next. He dragged her into some bushes, smashing her head into the ground and raping her.
The man stole the backpack containing her camera, but she still had the photo on her home computer and she gave it to the police. There was also surveillance camera footage of him fleeing, wearing her backpack.
Later, a trio of rookie cops spotted him two blocks from the park and arrested him. He spat at the reporters and photographers who later gathered to watch him being led out of the stationhouse. He was a 42-year old smoldering tattooed hulk who had long since lost the young and innocent look that had once helped him get acquitted in a rape and murder case.
Down in West Virginia, his former defense attorney, Sid Bell, is now the McDowell County prosecuting attorney. Word of the events in New York awaited him when he returned to his office after winning a guilty verdict in a murder case where a 74-year-old man shot his daughter’s boyfriend in the eye. Bell was told that his former client David Anthony Mitchell had been arrested in Central Park for a crime that was way too familiar.
“Unsettling would be the right word,” Bell later said, adding, “I was very surprised he would be in New York City.”
Bell theorizes that Mitchell may have wanted to go somewhere where “nobody would know him and his reputation.”
“It’s a real mystery,” he said.
One of the lead investigators who worked that long-ago murder case is now assigned to the local high school. He recalled how hard it had been when Mitchell beat the case.
“That was a tough one,” Deputy Blevins remembered.
Blevins said of Mitchell, “He preys on the elderly and the infirm. He is just a sick, evil individual.”
At his office, Bell recalled how Mitchell had only been able to print “D-A-I-D” when asked to sign his name on the statement. He remembered that Mitchell’s mother, Sheila, had stood by her son.
“She was very supportive of David,” he recalled. “She really believed in his innocence in the first case.”
Bell said the family, “doesn’t have much income.” He wondered if everything might have turned out differently the family had been able to provide Mitchell with the mental health care he must have needed.
“I just feel like he probably would have benefitted from mental- health treatment in his teenage years,” Bell said. “His mother did the best she could.”
Bell did not have to be told what the world would have been spared if Mitchell had been convicted of that murder back in 1989. The former defense lawyer’s altogether legitimate defense of himself was that the American system of justice required him to do his best for his client.
“We did what we were called upon to do in our system, ” he said. “A vigorous defense.”
He also said, “I prefer being a prosecutor.”