This story was published in partnership with Mississippi Today.
In a meeting with the family of Ricky Ball, a Black man shot and killed by a white police officer, a lawyer with the Mississippi attorney general’s office said the office could not pursue a manslaughter case against the officer. But the lawyer, Michael Ward, narrowly interpreted or omitted some of the state’s evidence, and called the case “troubling.”
In audio recorded on May 28 and obtained by The Appeal, Ward tells Ball’s mother and aunt that if the case had gone to trial, statements from Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (MBI) officers and the state medical examiner’s report would lead the jury to conclude that Canyon Boykin, who was fired from the Columbus Police Department two weeks after the shooting, was justified when he shot Ball in October 2015. A June 4 report from the attorney general’s office, detailing why it dropped the case, gives the same reasoning.
But Ward, who said he spent two weeks looking into the case for Attorney General Lynn Fitch, casts doubt on Boykin’s integrity as an officer. He also acknowledges that Boykin and Ball had “previous run-ins” and that “there were racial issues” involved.
“Officer Boykin in my opinion is not a star officer,” Ward said on the recording. “This case is really troubling.”
Neither Ward nor a spokesperson for Fitch’s office responded to The Appeal’s requests for comment.
Elizabeth Ball Cockrell, Ball’s aunt who says she identified her nephew’s body after the shooting, told The Appeal she felt as though Ward was not working on the family’s behalf.
“I feel like he was more paving a clearance for Officer Boykin to walk away scot-free,” she said in a phone interview.
Fitch dropped the manslaughter charge against Boykin in late May, and at her request, a local judge dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning the case cannot be brought back to court on the same grounds.
“It’s a systematic issue, our inability to have these officer-involved shooting cases handled appropriately,” said Scott Colom, district attorney for the 16th District, which includes Columbus. He recently made public some of the case files from the attorney general’s office.
Boykin’s indictment, he said, “represented the voice of the community.” But “then you have a dismissal with very little explanation … and there’s evidence that supported the indictment that was not mentioned in the dismissal,” he said. “It’s why there is so much distrust in our criminal justice system.”
Around 10 p.m. on October 16, 2015, three members of Columbus Police Department’s Special Operations Group—Boykin, Officer Johnny “Max” Branch, and Officer Yolanda Young were doing an unapproved ride-along with Boykin’s fiance, Alisa Stanford, in an unmarked Crown Victoria.
Young said in sworn testimony she observed that a license plate light was out on a Grand Marquis, and Branch, who was driving, followed it before turning on the police lights. Shannon Brewer, who was driving the Marquis with Ball seated on the passenger side, didn’t immediately pull over and later explained to investigators that Ball panicked, grabbed her wheel and said that he was “dirty.”
Branch got on Boykin’s radio and called in the traffic stop. “We got one failing to stop,” he said.
Young said Brewer drove over a speed bump, and Ball jumped out of the car. Boykin exited his vehicle and ran after Ball. While Boykin pursued Ball, Young handcuffed Brewer, and hugged and comforted Stanford, Young said in sworn testimony.
Boykin said he shouted for Ball to stop and deployed his Taser, and Ball fell to the ground. Boykin approached Ball—whose body he later told MBI investigators, was “locked up from the taser”— and saw a gun in Ball’s hands. Boykin said he then yelled “gun” twice. Boykin told investigators he never yelled out any command for Ball to drop the gun he said he saw.
Boykin dropped his Taser and “transitioned to his firearm,” he said. “I did feel threatened, and that’s why I drew my weapon,” Boykin told investigators five days after the shooting. “I did—I did point it at him. I didn’t fire until I seen—when I seen him turn, that’s when I felt the full threat.”
Young said Boykin ran away from Ball in a semicircle to get out of the direct line of fire, per his training. Ball then got up and ran, Boykin later told MBI investigators. Boykin said that after Ball ran about 20 to 25 yards, he saw Ball slow down and raise his right arm as if to shoot him. Boykin fired nine rounds; one bullet struck Ball in the right hip and another struck a critical artery in his right arm. Only about 13 seconds elapsed between Branch’s radio call about Brewer failing to stop and Branch reporting shots had been fired, radio traffic recordings show.
Boykin told the MBI that after he shot Ball, Ball got up and jumped a ditch.
Only about 13 seconds elapsed between Branch’s radio call about Brewer failing to stop and Branch reporting shots had been fired.
None of the officers’ body cameras were active during the encounter leading up to or during the shooting. Boykin activated his camera only after the shooting.
According to that bodycam footage, obtained by The Appeal, Boykin says to other officers arriving at the scene, “Oh, fuck. He fucking pulled a gun on me, dude. … There’s his blood right there,” and points to the ground. “He’s hit bad on the right side.”
Officer Christian Benton’s body camera picks up someone yelling for help. Officers find Ball, one-tenth of a mile away from the traffic stop, lying on his back between two houses, his shirt drenched with blood.
Officers shout “show me your hands!” and “get your hands up!” as they approach Ball with their weapons drawn. Officers are heard saying they spot a gun near Ball and drag his body by the leg away from it. Later, in a statement to investigators, Officer Garrett Mittan, who responded to the scene, said officers pulled Ball away from the gun after they realized he was unresponsive.
The gun found near Ball was the same weapon Mittan reported stolen from his home on August 5, 2015, according to a report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A wrongful death suit on behalf of Ball accused Mittan of planting the weapon at the scene. The city of Columbus settled the suit with Ball’s family for an undisclosed amount in 2018.
Bodycam footage then shows officers finding “dope” in the cinderblocks of the home where Ball hid; an MBI report states that a Taurus 9 mm pistol and marijuana were found there.
As Ball writhes on the ground, Benton runs to get purple gloves, then comes back to handcuff Ball’s wrists. “Stop moving. I can’t help you if you keep moving, quit it,” he says as he locks the cuffs above Ball’s head. Officers stand around Ball’s body, shining their flashlights on him as EMTs tend to his injuries.
Bodycam footage from inside the ambulance shows a female EMT attempting to resuscitate Ball. Someone is heard saying “no pulse” before the video cuts off. Ball was pronounced dead at 11:12 p.m. at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle, just an hour after the traffic stop.
In a June 2018 deposition for a civil matter related to the shooting, Jeff Reynolds, one of Boykin’s attorneys, asked then deputy chief medical examiner Lisa Funte about the likelihood of survival if “Ball had given up sooner.”
“It’s possible he may have still died even if he had received timely medical intervention,” Funte replied. “But he would have had a much greater chance of survival with immediate medical attention.”
After the city fired Boykin, he sued, claiming that he was let go unjustly because of “uninformed public pressure,” according to the lawsuit. The city settled with Boykin in 2017 for an undisclosed amount.
Colom, the district attorney, transferred the case to the attorney general’s office in July 2016, when Democrat Jim Hood was still in office. A Lowndes County grand jury indicted Boykin in September 2016, and Fitch inherited the case when she took office in January.
In the May audio, Ward says to the Ball family that he was aware Ball and Boykin had “previous run-ins” and that there “was a history” between the two of them. But the attorney general’s report discounts statements from Ball’s former girlfriend and family friend that suggest Boykin may have targeted Ball.
Aunnaray Leech, a friend of the Ball family, told investigators that Boykin was aggressive toward Ball in the past. And Dominique Cotton, Ball’s former girlfriend, told investigators that Boykin was harassing Ball in the weeks leading up to the shooting, particularly after Ball fled from Boykin during a traffic stop months before.
On Aug. 26, 2015, Boykin and Branch attempted to pull Ball over. He was driving a blue Hyundai with Laura Hines, a white woman and step-cousin to Boykin. Ball refused to pull over and led Boykin and Branch on a chase through Columbus. The officers lost the vehicle for several minutes. When they finally located Hines, Ball was nowhere to be found. Hines told Boykin she had been riding with Ball.
As they were pursuing Ball’s car, Boykin said to Branch, “I’m going to snatch her out the car, snatch him out the car,” according to body camera footage. “You going to whoop his ass?” Branch asked Boykin. “He was going to jail no matter what,” Boykin says. “No matter what he was going to jail today. … If i get my fucking hands on him, fucking moolie, goddamnit, motherfucker.”
Moolie is an Italian slur against Black people. Boykin’s counsel rejected the transcription of the audio recording, saying Boykin instead said “bully” and does not know what “moolie” means.
A local judge ruled in August 2017 that the video would be admissible at trial to help “establish the defendant’s state of mind” during the shooting.
‘Very strange situation’
Ball’s family raised questions in the meeting with Ward about the gun that police say they found at the scene of the shooting. Ward replied, “It was stolen in August and found there in the cinder blocks. Very strange situation.”
In a June 2018 deposition for a civil case against Boykin, an officer with the MBI said Ball’s fingerprints were not on the gun found at the scene, there were discrepancies in the Taser log, and he had no opinion about whether Boykin was justified in shooting Ball.
When Funte, the deputy chief medical examiner, sat for a deposition in 2018, she said that the amount of pain Ball was in may have caused him to drop the gun in question.
“He would still have the ability to grip things,” Funte said. “Pain, again, is going to cause you to attend to the pain. So, he’s holding something, he may drop it, but it’s still possible for him to continue to grip it. … It’s also possible that when he gets shot, the impact of the bullet, itself, may cause him to drop or release his grip on the gun on anything he’s carrying.”
Ward told Ball’s family that he asked Boykin to take a polygraph because “there was a lot of issues involved” in the case. The report from the attorney general’s office notes that Boykin took the polygraph and “was found to be truthful in his answers concerning this case that supported his claim of self-defense.”
Ward acknowledged to the family that “polygraphs are not admissible in court, they’re not 100 percent sure.”
Ward told the Ball family that Funte agreed with Boykin’s version of what happened. But neither he nor the attorney general’s report acknowledge the clarifications Funte made to her original statement.
The report cites Funte’s February 2017 affidavit as evidence that Ball was shot while raising a pistol, as Boykin claimed. “Notably this is contrary to social media postings contained in the case file claiming Mr. Ball was shot in the back,” the report reads, referencing posts on YouTube in the aftermath of the shooting.
But in a declaration, filed with the court a year after her affidavit, Funte said that both bullets entered Ball “from back to front.” She also clarified that her affidavit addressed one specific possibility and was not intended to address all of the “potential possibilities regarding the position of Mr. Ball when he was shot.” Funte said Ball could have either been turning to shoot Boykin with a gun in his hand when he was shot or Ball could have been running and pumping his arms when he got shot.
The attorney said he could not share Funte’s reports with the family because it was part of the attorney general’s office’s investigation. However, The Appeal obtained her entire autopsy report, including photographs of Ball’s body, from public court records at the Lowndes County Courthouse.
Fitch’s office also based its decision to dismiss the case on a report from Charles Wetli, a forensic pathologist hired by Boykin’s attorneys. Wetli reviewed Funte’s autopsy report and 2017 affidavit, Boykin’s indictment, and photographs of Ball’s autopsy and photos from the scene of the incident and concluded in his August 2017 report that “Mr. Ball was not shot from behind.”
Wetli coined the term “excited delirium,” a condition of agitation or acute distress often caused by drugs or electric shock from a Taser that could cause sudden death. It is not recognized by the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, or the World Health Organization.
Legal experts say the defense for Officer Derek Chauvin—who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck last month until he died—may hinge on the same controversial condition, despite Floyd’s autopsy proving otherwise.
‘We’re limited by the cards we have’
Ward also told the Ball family that the office dropped its indictment against Boykin because of the Weathersby rule—a state Supreme Court precedent that says if the defendant is the sole eyewitness, a jury would have to believe the defendant’s testimony, barring substantial evidence to rebut or contradict their account. The jury would have to accept Boykin’s version of what happened unless “we can present credible evidence to rebut it,” Ward said.
“We’re limited by the cards we have to get a conviction,” Ward said. “And we can’t go in hoping we’re going to get a biased jury and try to throw some darts and hope for a conviction. But this is absolutely not an exoneration of Boykin whatsoever. I want y’all to understand that.”
In January 2019, Boykin’s defense attorneys used the Weathersby argument in an attempt to get the state to drop the case. “It should be required to (dismiss this case) not only to end Officer Boykin’s nightmare, but also to save the State the needless waste of taxpayer resources and the court’s time in trying a case which the State knows cannot be successful,” the motion reads.
In response to Boykin’s motion, then assistant attorney general Stanley Alexander argued against this reliance on Weathersby. “Weathersby is only to be applied at the completion of the state’s case and then if only the defendant’s account of the crime is not contradicted. … The argument is simply premature at this time,” Alexander wrote in February 2019. Fitch fired Alexander in January and has since let go of other assistant attorneys general from the previous administration. Alexander declined to comment.
Protesters demand answers
The decision to dismiss the case sparked protests outside Fitch’s office in Jackson on June 5. According to Mississippi Today, a group of about 150 people shouted, “No free kill” and protesters tried to hand deliver a letter to Fitch, demanding to know the evidence her office considered in dropping the charges against Boykin. The Clarion-Ledger reported that the letter eventually made it to her office.
Ball Cockrell, Ricky Ball’s aunt who was in the meeting, told The Appeal she wanted this case to go to trial, and following the meeting with Ward, she didn’t feel like his reasoning for dropping the case made sense to her.
“I’m not a lawyer, but it was just so many things that didn’t have a clear answer,” she said.
Throughout the audio, Ward drew comparisons between himself and the Ball family: Ward said he was also a Christian, has a son Ricky’s age, and that he knew how hurt the Ball family was since he lost his best friend three years ago.
Toward the end of the meeting, Ball’s mother, Angela, got emotional.
“Here I am 52 raising a 7-year-old,” she said of Ball’s daughter, Makayla Hendricks, who joined the protests outside Fitch’s office.
“[Ward] said this doesn’t exonerate Boykin and he stayed up so many sleepless nights … but you don’t tell us what kept you up at night worried about this case?” said Ball Cockrell. “I didn’t walk out of that meeting feeling good.”