As the slouched towards its conclusion in Marin Superior Court over the past several weeks, the psychological, literary, legal and even architectural ironies seemed to multiply like a Hunter Thompson hallucination.
Superior Court Judge Kelly Simmons of the Mitchell Brothers/O’Farrell Theater porn empire to 36 years to life for the gruesome July 2009 slaying of Danielle Keller, the mother of Mitchell’s year-old daughter, Samantha. Oddly, Simmon’s Courtroom G, the site of the trial, was just down the hall from the courtroom in which James Mitchell’s father Jim was tried for the 1994 murder of Jim Mitchell's’s brother Artie.
A Marin County jury took little more than a day to with special circumstances for a killing and kidnapping that was as incomprehensible as it was sickening. After having literally beaten Keller’s brains out, Mitchell pried his shrieking daughter from underneath her mother's body and fled. In a series of on-the-run phone conversations, Mitchell told family members he might bolt for Mexico.
A statewide Amber Alert ensued, ending with Mitchell surrendering near the Sacramento County home of former San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, a long-time Mitchell friend. Hallinan later turned over the Augean Mitchell mess to famed radical San Francisco attorney, Stuart Hanlon, who had once defended the Black Panther Party.
In testimony, Mitchell said his father warned that if he was ever in trouble, “always keep your mouth shut and find an attorney.” Keeping silent however, was something the younger Mitchell never quite mastered, insisting, for example, that he take the stand on his own behalf. This left Mitchell open for a brutal, exhausting cross-examination by prosecutor Charles Cacciatore.
During testimony, Mitchell goaded Cacciatore, using his nickname, “Chuck.” This and other bits of juvenile behavior seemed to anger a jury already troubled by items like the murder weapon, an aluminum softball bat sealed in a transparent plastic tube and often left in front of the judge's bench.
As Cacciatore built a case on hideous crime-scene photos, a treasure-trove of forensic data and witness testimony, jury members glanced surreptitiously at the blunt-skulled, hound-dog droopy Mitchell with distaste. Mitchell’s often-otherworldly responses to Cacciatore’s questions made it seem as if he wanted to commit “suicide by cross-exam.”
In a final rant before sentencing, Mitchell portrayed himself the victim of the judicial system, of his girlfriend’s mother, of a “piss poor” local media, of his defense attorney, but, most-of-all, because of his porn-world status as Jim Mitchell’s son and namesake.
On that final point, Mitchell stood as close as he ever did to solid ground. The Mitchell Brothers/O’Farrell Theater porn empire was so much a part of San Francisco’s self-reverential Barbary Coast legend that it seemed natural that James Mitchell would have adopted it as his own personal mantra. On the stand, the younger Mitchell continually tied his own life to his father's, lamenting the “years of living with my father’s name.”
The problem was not that the Mitchell Brothers, self-described as “white trash from Antioch," had gotten fabulously rich off their breakthrough flower-power pornography. It was that even if they thought of themselves as enlightened supporters of women’s rights, the lives and sins of the Mitchell Brothers would always be characterized by spousal and other kinds of abuse that seemed always to resolve itself in sickening personal human wreckage.
In February 1991, the Mitchell miracle came crashing down when an armed-to-the-teeth Jim Mitchell set off to Artie's Corte Madera home. After years of high living, the man they called “Party Hardy Artie” had gotten so scarily out of control that his older brother intervened. There are different versions of the event, but one thing is certain: The late-night shootout left Artie dead and Jim charged with his murder.
The Mitchell brothers were such local legends in San Francisco that a team of crack lawyers were able to convince a Marin jury that far from murder, Jim Mitchell's actions were an ultimate example of brotherly love and self-sacrifice. Against all odds, Mitchell was convicted of manslaughter. And while he awaited sentencing, an all-star cast of friends and O’Farrell Theater patrons rallied to help minimize Mitchell's sentence. Among the luminaries were political fixer Jack Davis and writers Herb Gold, Hunter S. Thompson, and Warren Hinckle. Mayor Frank Jordan and District Attorney Hallinan were among many who wrote to the court in praise of all things Mitchell.
Jim Mitchell walked out of prison in just three years. “You think you’re Travis Bickle," the judge chided at the time, referring to the “avenging angel” role played by Robert DeNiro in the film “Taxi Driver.” Rampart’s magazine founder Warren Hinckle memorialized life at the O’Farrell Theater thus: “For the Mitchell Brothers, sex was strictly front room action. In the back of the O’Farrell Theatre dwelled artists, outcasts, dreamers.” If you were invited upstairs at the O’Farrell, you were in a special circle of San Francisco heaven.
Initially after the murder, Artie's kids, spouses and lovers supported Jim. Virtually the entire extended clan attended the wake Jim had touchingly put on for the brother he had so recently killed. But Artie's kids ended up suing Jim.
Jim Mitchell died of a heart attack in October 1997 at the age of 63. The porn business devolved to the next generation, with a number of the kids working in various family's enterprises. James Mitchell worked on and off for the family film company. The family's reach and power was still evident when, just two weeks before Keller's murder, a San Francisco Superior Court judge and Mitchell family friend refused a probation officer's request to send James Mitchell to jail for skipping court hearings involving domestic violence he committed against Danielle Keller.
In later testimony, it was noted that Keller had taken out a series of temporary restraining orders against Mitchell and was clearly terrified of him. Instead of being arrested, Mitchell was sentenced to two days with even that sentence stayed.
After having witnessed and caught so many breaks in his life, James Mitchell still seemed to believe that the rules didn't apply to him, that he would skate one more time. What he did not account for was that his own weird passion play was being trumped by Danielle Keller's mother, Claudia Stevens.
Stevens staged her own little Golgotha, packing the courtroom with friends and family, being allowed to show a video biography and given the time to read a series of impassioned statements that characterized Mitchell as “selfish, greedy and born with a blatant sense of entitlement.”
"Thank God I’ll be dead before he has a chance at parole,” Stevens later told reporters. Stevens even enlisted a cadre of women to pass out Gerber Daisies, the flower of anti-domestic violence.
In the face of this righteous onslaught, Mitchell fulminated about Stevens, but refused to retract what had been his lame alibi. He claimed he had arrived at Keller's home just as two men, one dressed in white, the other in black, were attacking Keller and trying, for reasons unknown, to kidnap Samantha. At the time, jurors exchanged uneasy glances as Mitchell tried to enhance his own credibility with such weird details like one assailant's “sky blue eyes,” while the other had “hairy arms and a buzz cut.”
For prosecutor Cacciatore, this was the moment on which the case pivoted. “What he’s saying is completely contradicted by the physical evidence,” Cacciatore recalled, noting that one of the jurors, a man who had been taking copious notes, put his pen down and ceased his note-taking.
Mitchell’s “the other guys did it” defense sent the courtly Hanlon sinking deeper into his seat, weighed down by a task being made more difficult every time Mitchell opened his mouth.
Ultimately, Hanlon helped soften some blows, getting Mitchell at least to admit that while he was a wife batterer, “I am not a murderer.” It was for naught. At one point, Hanlon was overheard leaving the courtroom muttering that “Mitchell has just lost my case.”
On another particularly bad day in court, Hanlon walked through the Civic Center parking lot complaining “it's too bad the son got all the bad genes of the father and none of the good ones.”