The trial of three alleged biker gangsters came to a dramatic end Wednesday when they were found not guilty of murder in the fatal shooting of Dominic Mitchell during a 2015 battle between rival Columbus motorcycle clubs.
“You killed my damn son!” Mitchell’s mother Penny Bennett shouted as relatives and deputies rushed her from the courtroom after Judge Bobby Peters announced the verdict. “I don’t mind going to jail! You murdered my son! I want to go to jail!”
Defendants Daginald Wheeler, 53, and James Daniel Jr., 38, were found not guilty of all the charges, which included murder, aggravated assault, robbery and gang violence. Their codefendant Demark Ponder, 48, also was found not guilty on those charges, but jurors found him guilty of making a false statement to police, for which Peters gave him two years in prison.
The verdict followed an earlier courtroom dispute Wednesday over a juror’s defying the judge’s instructions to refrain from discussing the case with anyone beyond the room in which jurors were deliberating.
Peters learned jurors were complaining the foreperson Tuesday night had contacted a spouse’s friend who once was a pledge to the Outcast Motorcycle Club, with which the three defendants were affiliated.
They were accused of joining other Outcasts in invading a Macon Road sports bar where a biker group called the Strikers were hosting a meet-and-great. Mitchell was shot twice in the chest when a brawl erupted within seconds of the Outcasts entering the bar.
As the Outcasts fled, a shootout ensued in the parking lot, where evidence showed more than 70 shots were fired and three people were wounded.
Among those wounded was Ponder, who was hit in the leg and suffered a shattered femur. He and codefendant James Daniel Jr., both Outcast pledges, raced from the bar to the emergency room at St. Francis Hospital, where Daniel waited while Ponder was being treated.
Called into court for questioning Wednesday, the jury foreperson told Peters that having learned a friend of her husband’s formerly was an Outcast pledge, she contacted the friend to ask whether a pledge under club rules would be allowed to leave a fellow biker who was wounded. The friend answered “no,” she said, and she passed that on to the other jurors.
“Just that one question is all I asked,” she said. “I didn’t even have a conversation. I texted him.”
Other jurors were outraged the foreperson had defied court orders. When Peters called in a second juror who had complained about the foreperson, she said the other jurors wanted the foreperson off the panel: “There are 10 people who have a problem with her calling a person.”
With the attorneys’ tacit agreement, Peters dismissed the foreperson, replacing her with an alternate juror. The newly constituted jury then was called into the courtroom together, and Peters again instructed jurors to have no contact with anyone outside the jury room.
Jurors returned to the room about 11 a.m. to elect a new foreperson and restart their deliberations with the alternate. Alternate jurors hear all the evidence at trial, but they do not join deliberations unless called to replace someone who can’t continue.
The new jury reached its verdict about 4 p.m.
The defense reaction
After the verdict, Daniel’s attorney Dorothy Williams said her client was charged only because he got swept up in the homicide investigation only by association with the Outcasts. Daniel had no felony record, she said.
“We’re talking about a young man who’s been biking since he was 16 years old, and he never had a speeding ticket until, I want to say, about a month before this incident occurred – never got into any trouble at all,” she said. “So for him, he feels vindicated.”
Wheeler’s attorney Stacey Jackson said prosecutors failed to establish the elements required to prove Wheeler had any knowledge or intent to commit a crime.
“There was no evidence whatsoever that the state presented that my client … had any knowledge that a fight or altercation was going to break out that night,” he said.
Wheeler was charged as a “party to the crime” in Mitchell’s slaying, requiring proof he played an active role, such as ordering or soliciting others to kill Mitchell. But investigators searching Wheeler’s property and cell phone communications found no evidence of that, and no witness testimony supported it, Jackson noted.
Of prosecutors’ charging the defendants with violating Georgia’s law against criminal gang violence, Jackson said: “That was a total farce.”
The prosecution produced no evidence the Outcast club met the legal standards for a criminal gang, he said: “This case had nothing to do with criminal gang activity. That statute was not passed for this type of case…. There’s no evidence whatsoever that the Outcast Motorcycle Club was criminal street gang.”
The law was aimed at infamous street gangs known for crime, such as MS 13, Bloods and Crips, Jackson said. Even the prosecution’s expert witness on gangs couldn’t provide evidence the Outcasts qualified as a criminal street gang, he said.
Wheeler was to leave the county jail as soon as his paperwork was completed, Jackson said: “He’ll go back and try to put his life back together. He’s lost his business because he didn’t have the resources to make bond and stay out of jail while his case was pending.”
Wheeler owned and operated Headquarters Automotive at 2626 N. Lumpkin Road, an auto repair shop.
Attorney Rod Skiff represented Ponder, who claimed self-defense under the Georgia statute some call the “stand your ground” law. Ponder said that when the fight broke out inside the 4th Quarter Sports Bar & Grill at 6959 Macon Road, a gunman pointed a pistol at him and using a racial slur said, “I’m going to kill you, n----r.”
Ponder pulled his 9mm pistol and fired twice as he ducked away and fled, and never looked back, he said.
Ballistics tests later matched a bullet from Mitchell’s body to Ponder’s gun, authorities said.
The self-defense law allows using deadly force in the face of an imminent threat to oneself or to others, and it does not require the person to retreat.
“I think the jury got it right,” Skiff said. “Georgia’s law on justification and stand your ground won the day.”
Still Ponder must serve time for lying to police who came to question him and Daniel at St. Francis Hospital. Ponder initially told investigators he was hit in a random shooting while riding his motorcycle on Interstate 185. He later admitted he was wounded at the sports bar.
The prosecution’s case
Prosecutors alleged the Outcasts mounted a “commando-style” assault on the Strikers gathering about 11:20 p.m. Oct. 9, 2015. Surveillance video showed Wheeler leading a single-file line of eight motorcycles into the bar’s parking lot before the Outcasts split into two groups, with some approaching from the rear, investigators said.
Witnesses testified that seconds after the black-clad Outcasts entered the bar, several brawls broke out as Wheeler and Daniel wrested a signature vest away from then-Strikers president Hilliard London.
Mitchell was shot as Outcasts fled with the vest. Out in the parking lot, a gun battle erupted as a Strikers’ ally, Edward Bush, began firing an AR-15 rifle. Bush testified he at first fired into the air to scare the Outcasts off, then started aiming at them after he was hit in the abdomen. He’s believed to have wounded Ponder.
Witness Preston Ross heard Bush holler he was hit, and ran out under fire to throw Bush over his shoulder and carry him to a friend’s truck, where another bullet grazed Bush’s neck and nearly hit the driver. Bush also went to St. Francis Hospital, where his friends recognized the motorcycles Ponder and Daniel had left parked outside.
After rescuing Bush, Ross went into the sports bar and saw Mitchell on floor. He put his fingers to Mitchell’s throat, and felt no pulse, he said.
Investigators said Mitchell bled to death.
A son saved and lost
After having time to regain her composure Wednesday, Mitchell’s mother sat in the district attorney’s office and remembered the 33-year-old son she lost.
She’d had a miscarriage before she became pregnant with Dominic, so she was extra careful about minding her health before his birth on Feb. 28, 1982, she said.
She was working as a waitress then in their hometown of Franklin, La., about 100 miles west of New Orleans.
“It was important for me to save him, so I took off from work early,” she said. After he was born healthy and safe, she felt they had “a special bond.”
Witnesses said Mitchell was at the bar with the Strikers that night because he was known for his Cajun cooking, and they had invited him to cook for them.
Cooking was a hobby he took up after he left Louisiana, moving first to Pensacola, Fla., and later to Columbus, for work, his mother said: “He loved to cook. He would call me to ask for different Louisiana recipes.”
Their last communication concerned an aging dog she had, she said. She took a photo of the dog and sent it to him, saying, “Here’s Pooh-Bear.” He texted back, “Mama, I think you need another dog.”
He grew up to be a big man, around 6-foot-5, weighing 300 pounds, she said. He could look intimidating, but he wasn’t. “He wasn’t a bully-type person,” she said. “He’d fight if he had to.”
Growing up, he was afraid of bees and of thunderstorms, she said. He would retreat to his mother’s bedroom when storms came.
“I would find him sleeping on the side of my bed, all wrapped up in covers, afraid of lightning and thunder,” she said.
He left behind a wife and two young daughters, she said: One girl is around age 8, and the other’s 4.