Michael R. Mitchell, lawyer who fought LAPD chokehold use, dies at 73

Michael R. Mitchell, lawyer who fought LAPD chokehold use, dies at 73
Michael R. Mitchell, representing the family of Ron Settles, shows Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Sarah Reddy photos during an inquest in 1981. (Los Angeles Times)

Michael R. Mitchell, an attorney who challenged the Los Angeles Police Department's use of chokeholds and won temporary restrictions on their use, died Friday at his Los Angeles home. He was 73.

He had pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Barbara Mitchell.


An avid reader with a taste for elegantly convoluted puns, Mitchell ran a bookshop in Agoura Hills after shutting his legal practice several years ago.

While making his living as a securities attorney, Mitchell also took on numerous civil rights cases. For a time, he practiced with Johnnie Cochran, the lawyer best known for his defense of O.J. Simpson.

In 1981, the two took a case filed by the family of Ron Settles, a promising football player at Cal State Long Beach who died in his jail cell after being stopped for speeding in the community of Signal Hill.

Police said he had fought with officers and later hanged himself. His attorneys argued he was killed by a police chokehold — a technique they demonstrated to jurors at a coroner's inquest.

"Mitchell wrapped his forearm around my neck and applied pressure to my windpipe," Cochran wrote in his memoir, "A Lawyer's Life." "There wasn't a sound in that courtroom. When he finally released me, it took me several minutes to catch my breath."

The demonstration — the first in what became part of Cochran's trademark courtroom strategy — worked. Jurors concluded that Settles had "died at the hands of another."

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, chokeholds applied by Los Angeles police officers were blamed by the department's critics — including Mitchell — in 17 deaths over eight years. Police defended the holds as essential in some cases, especially when violent suspects had ingested such drugs as PCP.

In 1981, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued an injunction temporarily banning the LAPD from using chokeholds in most cases.

But two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Mitchell's arguments and effectively sided with the city in a 5-4 decision.

Representing Adolph Lyons, an African-American driver choked by police after a traffic stop, Mitchell said his client nearly had died.

"He suffered and is terrified he'll suffer again," he told the justices, contending that police in Los Angeles made disproportionate use of the potentially lethal holds on black males.

Discussion was contentious. When an attorney for the city said the holds were used only to "gain control" of an uncooperative individual, Justice Thurgood Marshall was indignant: "Doesn't a loaded gun 'gain control'?" he asked. "Why do you have to choke them to death?"

Over the years, the department's use of the controversial holds has dwindled. Chokeholds were employed only twice in 2013 and once in 2012, a department spokesman told The Times last December.

Mitchell, born in Orangeburg, S.C., on Feb. 24, 1942, grew up in rural Kentucky and North Carolina.


When he was a toddler, his father, Capt. Albert W. Mitchell, was killed in action at Normandy in 1944. His mother, Glenna Mitchell, later married Douglas Bell, a pastor.

Mitchell received a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Transylvania University in Kentucky and a master's in mathematics from the University of North Carolina. In 1968, he graduated from Harvard Law School and, after working briefly for the Securities and Exchange Commission, took a job studying securities transactions for the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica.

He soon went into private practice, representing financial firms as well as plaintiffs suing police departments for alleged brutality.

Over the years, he maintained a close friendship with journalist Norman Pearlstine, a reporter who was to become editor of the Wall St. Journal and chief content officer for Time Inc.

In his 2007 book "Off the Record: The Press, the Government and the War Over Anonymous Sources," Pearlstine wrote of making a troubled late-night call to Mitchell about the prospect of defying a court order and refusing to name a source in the Valerie Plame government leaks case.

"Knowing it was midnight in Los Angeles," he writes, "I assumed he would be awake, scotch in hand, doing some reading."

Mitchell's advice went counter to most journalistic wisdom: Name names, if required.

"If presidents cannot ignore the Supreme Court, how can you?" he asked his old friend.

Ultimately, Pearlstine agreed.

"Because he had a sharp legal mind and a keen understanding of Socratic dialogue, I could count on him to ask the toughest, hardest questions — probing and uncomfortable, but not adversarial," Pearlstine said in an interview.

In addition to Barbara, his wife of 16 years, Mitchell is survived by six daughters from three marriages.

In his later years, he maintained his boyhood affection for amateur radio and looked back fondly on his days piloting a hot-air balloon, a sport he pursued after his mother took it up in her 60s.

Mitchell's craft, which drifted over events like Albuquerque's Balloonfest, was called the Legal Eagle.

Twitter: @schawkins