Ballistics: The Science of Guns
A Difference Between Life and Death
A book, movie and television miniseries have all been devoted to the killing of one brother, Artie Mitchell, by another, Jim Mitchell, both of them moguls in the pornography industry. It was the work of a ballistics expert that made a difference in the trial's outcome and ensured that the case would be endlessly controversial.
Artie and Jim had created a major industry out of the burgeoning pornography market in California, beginning in the early 1970s. Censorship standards had loosened and bans were lifted. For almost two decades, they thrived off high-profit X-rated movies, achieving their claim to fame from the movie, Behind the Green Door, starring Marilyn Chambers. Then they opened strip clubs in San Francisco and engaged in a reckless lifestyle of drugs and sex.
Jim, the elder brother by two years, had decided to clean up, but Artie was deeply addicted to the fast life, and his resistance to rehab was, according to Jim in later testimony, to threaten Jim and his family. Since Jim and Artie had grown up taking care of things with guns, Jim brought two guns with him on the night he had chosen to force his brother to get into drug rehab.
It was February 27, 1991. Jim went to see Artie and they got into a bad argument. Even as Artie's girlfriend was screaming to a 911 operator, gunshots could be heard. Officers came and found Jim walking around in a daze and carrying a .22 rifle and a .38 Smith and Wesson Special. Inside Artie's house, they found Artie in the bedroom. He had been shot through the eye, abdomen and right arm by a .22, and he was dead. Eight spent cartridges were picked up in the room.
While Jim was charged with premeditated murder, he claimed it had been the result of an argument and a struggle while trying to get his brother to get help. He had never intended to kill him. However, there were those who said that Jim had a motive: he wanted to sell the business and Artie was not about to let that happen. A lot of money was at stake.
The 911 recording was brought into evidence, and Dr. Harry Hollien, an expert in acoustics, said that he had isolated the shots. He used a room in his own home that was about the same size and came up with recordings of his test shots. From his experiments, he concluded how many seconds there were between each of five shots recorded on the tape. Between the third and fourth shot, there had been a significant gap of about half a minute. The prosecution viewed that as evidence of a clear and deliberate act, not something done in the heat of the moment or by mistake.
Then expert Lucien Haag showed a video of his devising of a computer simulation of the incident. Artie was shown as being shot twice on his way into the hallway and then shot in the head in the hallway. Haag included all eight shots as he believed they would have occurred, although there were only five recorded on the 911 call. The way he did this was to trace the paths of the bullets by calculating in room angles and impact points from the point at which Jim Mitchell was standing when he fired. Haag represented these trajectories with dramatic red lasers.
When the defense, who had stridently opposed having this tape admitted into evidence, asked Haag if there were other possibilities besides the ones he had mapped, he was forced to admit that there were quite a few other possibilities. It was not an exact science, but an interpretation based on speculation.
That was a blow to the prosecution, and it made a difference in how the jury voted. On February 18, 1992, they found Mitchell guilty only of manslaughter. He was sentenced to six years but served only three.
From the time a bullet was first matched to a weapon until now, the technology of projectile behavior in motion and firearms evaluations has only gotten better, but it still depends to some extent on interpretation. Bullets do not always behave as expected.