Alleged murderer of Philly trans man held for trial

Charles Mitchell's headshot
Charles Mitchell

Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Wendy L. Pew this week held Charles Mitchell for trial, after a three-hour preliminary hearing on whether Mitchell murdered trans man Mar’Quis (MJ) Jackson.

On Dec. 14, 2022, Jackson’s body was discovered by his mother Tara in Mitchell’s backyard, scantily clad and beaten on the head and torso. Tara Jackson had been searching for her son for a lengthy period of time. The medical examiner declared the case a homicide due to head trauma.

Mitchell, 40, lived on the 1800 block of Brunner Street in the Nicetown section. He’s charged with murder, abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence. He’s currently being held without bail at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Northeast Philadelphia.

Police initially questioned Mitchell about Jackson’s death but then released him. Mitchell fled to Nevada. But last spring, he turned himself in after arrest warrants were issued for him.

On Aug. 9, a preliminary hearing was held for Mitchell. At the conclusion of the hearing, defense attorney Marni Jo Snyder asked Pew to dismiss the case. Snyder contended there was insufficient evidence to show that Mitchell caused Jackson’s death. 

“They [prosecutors] cannot prove causation of death,” Snyder said.

Moreover, Snyder said,  Mitchell had no motive to kill Jackson — whom he just met a few hours earlier at a party celebrating Jackson’s 33rd birthday.

“His [Mitchell’s] cooperation [with police] was full, complete and consistent,” Snyder told Pew.

But Pew agreed with prosecutor Lauren M. Crump — who said Mitchell should face a murder trial. Pew ruled that all charges against Mitchell would be retained. Mitchell will be arraigned on Aug. 30, the judge said.

The strongest evidence against Mitchell appears to be surveillance video from a convenience store that recorded the movements at Mitchell’s front door around the time of Jackson’s death.

The surveillance video shows Jackson entering Mitchell’s residence around 2 a.m. Dec. 13, 2022. The video also shows that Jackson never exited the residence. But Mitchell told police Jackson eventually left his residence through his front door, because he was having a seizure. Mitchell said he didn’t know how Jackson’s body ended up in his backyard.

The entire surveillance video spans the time period when Jackson entered Mitchell’s residence until his body was subsequently discovered in Mitchell’s backyard the next day. Due to its length, the entire video wasn’t played during the preliminary hearing. However, defense attorney Snyder didn’t contend the video was edited in a way that deleted a period of time when Jackson allegedly exited Mitchell’s residence via the front door.

Detective Joseph Napolitan testified that a vestibule door inside Mitchell’s residence had broken glass and a broken sliding lock — indicating that some type of struggle took place inside Mitchell’s residence.

Napolitan also testified that Mitchell had a swollen right hand when initially questioned by police, the implication being that Mitchell beat Jackson with his hand. 

An image of Mitchell’s hand was documented by police before he was released from police custody shortly after his initial questioning.

However, Napolitan agreed with Snyder when she pointed out that Mitchell’s hand wasn’t cut or bruised. Additionally, the detective agreed with Snyder that no weapon and no blood was found inside Mitchell’s residence.

Shakita Sheappard, a former girlfriend of Jackson, testified that she attended Jackson’s 33rd birthday party and saw Jackson leave the party with Mitchell. Sheappard sent numerous texts to Mitchell after the party, asking what happened to Jackson, because he never returned home. But Sheappard didn’t get a clear answer from Mitchell, according to her testimony.

“I don’t do drama,” Mitchell said in one of his reply texts to Sheappard, adding that Sheappard should leave him alone and stop harassing him.

Mitchell didn’t speak publicly during the hearing. But he could be seen passing a note to his attorney, suggesting a question to ask Sheappard. He was dressed in a plain white T-shirt and jeans. When he left the courtroom, he formed a heart with his hands, directed to his supporters.

Several family members of Jackson attended the hearing. One family member fled the courtroom in tears, after a representative from the city’s Medical Examiner’s Office held up graphic autopsy photos in a manner that relatives in the courtroom could see their contents.

The first witness was Police Officer Kelsey Finizio, who was dispatched to Mitchell’s home after Jackson’s body was discovered. Finizio misgendered Jackson during her testimony. The prosecutor, Crump, didn’t correct Finizio. But the defense attorney, Snyder, used male pronouns for Jackson when cross-examining Finizio, and Finizio began using male pronouns for Jackson.

When questioned by PGN after her testimony, Finizio apologized for the  misgendering. She declined additional comment, other than to note that she put a lot of effort into the case.

After the hearing, Cpl. Jasmine Reilly, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Police Department, said officers are trained to not misgender someone. “We’re really sorry that this happened,” Reilly told PGN. “Our policy is to refer to a person by their chosen pronouns. We have ongoing training for our officers, to try to avoid something like what happened today. We also have GOAL [Gay Officers Action League]. They’re a liaison between the police department and the community. They advocate for the needs of the LGBTQ+ community.”

Jane Roh, a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office, issued this statement regarding the misgendering: “[W]e generally do not comment on live prosecutions outside of court. I will note however that law enforcement officers rely on government records, and in this particular case the decedent’s true gender identity was not reflected in their government records (think birth certificate, driver’s license). Governments and the criminal legal system have much more work to do to ensure that official identification records are in alignment with people’s identities. This is one of many reasons why political attacks designed to marginalize and isolate LGBTQ+ people make us all less safe.”

Justin F. Robinette, a local civil-rights attorney, attended the preliminary hearing. In an email, he expressed agreement with Pew’s ruling.

“I agree with the court’s decision to hold the case over for trial, as there was certainly enough evidence to lead to the conclusion that the defendant committed the alleged murder,” Robinette wrote. “Based on the evidence, the motive could have clearly been transphobia. It’s also unfortunate that Officer Finizio misgendered the deceased victim. The City has to do a better job on living up to its promises to train its police force to be trans-competent and trans-inclusive. This should mean police officers testify in court with proper use of name and pronouns for a person who is transgender. It should also be the responsibility of the prosecuting attorney to address misgendering during witness preparation. I’m hopeful that the City takes appropriate steps to ensure that its police officers are more sensitive to LGBTQ+ victims in the future.”

Jackson was born and raised in South Carolina. Immediately prior to his death, he lived in the Germantown section of the city. He was heavily involved in transgender activism, which included supporting the William Way LGBT Community Center and the Transgender Legal Defense Fund among other causes. He was a vivacious person and always the “life of the party,” friends said.

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, the Keystone Press and the Pennsylvania Press Club.