For the past several months, attorneys in Charleston have raised concerns about a man with a clergy background acting as a legal adviser to courtroom defendants.
Some attorneys found the advice he gave confounding, and said he was doing more harm than good by interjecting himself into the process. This week, police made an arrest.
In a case that has unified prosecutors, defense lawyers and authorities, 64-year-old David Lee Edward Mitchell of Vermont Road was arrested by North Charleston police and charged with two counts of the unauthorized practice of law.
Magistrate Linda Lombard set Mitchell's bond at $50,000 for each charge Wednesday, or a total of $100,000. Each offense draws up to five years in state prison.
Lombard also ordered him to refrain from approaching within one block of any jail in South Carolina unless he is being held, and to not give any advice under the guise of being a lawyer, paralegal or legal expert.
Mitchell did not address the allegations directly during the bond hearing, but said he is a North Charleston resident, isn't a flight risk and that he is a former evangelist who now operates the Refreshing Springs Christian Fellowship. Another enterprise he identified as running he called The People's Advocate.
Authorities think Mitchell has been advising on legal matters as far back as October, and that his pattern has included reaching out to Charleston County inmates or their families by questioning the dedication of their hired attorney or public defender.
"He paints a pretty picture that he can fix everything, when he doesn't even have the authority to make good on it," North Charleston detective Chris Talbott said. The S.C. Bar does not list any attorney licensed in the state under Mitchell's name.
One of the complaints that led to the charges came from 9th Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington, who said it appeared Mitchell was able to gain contact with suspects at the Charleston County Detention Center through conversations with other inmates or by contacting family members.
A case Pennington forwarded to police centered around drug-trafficking suspect Damon Smith. In arrest documents, Smith said that while he was being held in the county jail he'd heard about Mitchell and his willingness to help. After Smith was released on bond, they made contact.
"Mr. Smith was under the impression the defendant was a lawyer or had legal training," documents state. Mitchell reportedly asked Smith's family for $500 but that the amount exchanged was $300, court papers state.
Court documents also allege that in the days before Smith was set to agree to a plea deal that had been worked out by his public defender, Mitchell met with Smith and advised him his public defender was not doing an adequate job and was trying to get him to plead guilty.
Smith reportedly also provided authorities with a document asking for a "Marsden hearing" to request the appointment of another attorney. Marsden hearings sometimes are used in various West Coast courtrooms but generally are not used or recognized in South Carolina, documents contend.
Pennington said Wednesday he feared Mitchell was "cloaking his activities as civil rights matters," to profit from the trust of vulnerable people isolated in jail, facing serious criminal charges and willing to reach out for any opportunity for courtroom leniency.
It is not known how many people Mitchell may have contacted. Investigators say they are early in their investigation.
In the second charge, Mitchell is accused of taking a $1,500 retainer to help a man whose case involving a land dispute in Ravenel had been dismissed in Charleston County. An affidavit states the man met with Mitchell, who advised him he could get his case heard again, possibly in another county.
Mitchell was still being held late Wednesday.