By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
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The following day Mitchell's mother, Connie Horton, came by the jail to see her son. She, too, recalls he was in "perfect health." He asked her about making sure his bills got paid.
Two days later, Mitchell's boss, Donald Smith, received a call at 10:24 p.m. He said the frantic, desperate voice was Mitchell's. "He told me they'd been in there shocking him and they were fixing to come in with clubs and beat him," says Smith. Spooked, he quickly hung up and dialed the jail. Officers assured him that nothing like that was going on. Forty minutes later, Smith received a call back. It was a jail deputy, who asked him if there was any reason Mitchell would be incoherent or disoriented and told him that guards would move him to a cell where they could monitor him more closely.
"I know him well enough to know there had to be something going on to make him call me like that," says Smith, who owns an auto repair garage in north Houston. The 67-year-old was a longtime friend of the family and had known Mitchell, 43, since his birth. He remembers him as "a pretty good boy," a hard worker and a jack-of-all-trades who had mastered not only car mechanics but plumbing, electrical work and carpentry.
When the Aikins couple came by the next day, he told them about the calls. "I didn't think too much about it," says Mike, Mitchell's brother-in-law. "You think your loved one's in jail -- you don't think about that ," he says, shuddering about what they would later discover. "You don't want to think about that."
The following Saturday morning, Mike and Cissy Aikins attempted to see Mitchell, but deputies wouldn't let them. According to a shift log, Sergeant Rocky Quertermous told them that Mitchell was "detoxing" at the time. The next day Mitchell's mother was also turned away from the jail with the explanation that Mitchell felt too wobbly to walk. Another officer wrote in the shift log, "He should be better by next weekend."
Some 15 hours later, a battered, withered James Henry Mitchell was pronounced dead.
Mitchell, a twice-married father of four, may have been a pretty good boy according to Smith, but his criminal record reveals a checkered past. Still, the family believes Mitchell never should have been in jail in the first place -- at least not this time.
In 1980, Mitchell was convicted of fatally stabbing a man and was sentenced to ten years' probation. His family contends he was being attacked and acted in self-defense. A 1984 burglary conviction netted him 20 years in prison. After his parole, a 1994 DWI sent him back behind bars for five years. Relatives say that after that, he never drank again. (Mitchell did take medication for a heart condition and, later, pain relievers as a result of a traffic accident.)
Nonetheless, in January of this year, a Montgomery County sheriff's deputy arrested Mitchell for allegedly driving drunk; he was on his way to get a jug of milk around midnight, his sister says. Some two weeks later, the Texas Department of Public Safety sent him a letter reinstating his suspended driver's license with an acknowledgement he had passed his Breathalyzer test. "We are sorry for any inconvenience that this may have caused," the letter notes.
Aikins says they faxed a copy of that letter to his parole officer in Conroe and confirmed later that everything was all right. (Because of his earlier convictions, he was still on parole until 2011.) Mitchell's lawyer, Mark Phillips, says no charges had been filed regarding the January traffic stop, although that incident prompted the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to issue a warrant on March 11 for parole violation. Two nights later, on a tip that Mitchell was driving drunk (which turned out false), a Montgomery County deputy pulled him over and hauled him in on the TDCJ warrant.
Aikins claims the police had also stopped him at other times in the past. "He just thought this was another time they were messing with him," she says.
Regardless of what brought him into the county jail, his relatives are still trying to find the answers to why Mitchell's incarceration would turn into his death sentence.
The autopsy reports that the cause of his "natural death" was heart disease, complicated by hepatitis. It notes blood on his mouth, neck and chest, but states there was "no sign of injury." Yet photographs from the jail scene and autopsy reveal more grisly detail: discolored contusions on his head, a sliced chin, swollen eyes streaked with dried blood, a gaping sore on his knee, scabby cuts on his toes, blackened elbows, skin torn from his buttocks, a splotchy, coffee-colored abrasion on his cheek and a craggy slash across his right wrist. Aikins says that at the funeral she touched him just beyond the hairline and her fingers caved in to a sickening, puttylike divot, which she believes did not come from the autopsy work.