COLUMBUS, Miss.—Ricky Ball was riding shotgun in a tan Mercury Marquis through north Columbus, Miss., just after 10 p.m. on Oct. 16, 2015, when Officer Canyon Boykin ordered the vehicle to pull over. Boykin and officers Johnny Branch and Yolanda Young were patrolling at the corner of 21st Street and 14th Avenue in a majority-black community near Skeets Hot Dogs on a city-authorized “ride-along” designed to stop cars and check identification in high-crime areas. Boykin and Young were part of a four-officer Special Operations Unit, referred to as SOG.
Ball, 26, had graduated from Caledonia High School in the small Lowndes County town of the same name. He played basketball for the Confederates there, and the school was on Confederate Drive. His family hailed from the Columbus area, but his mother had moved to Memphis. In 2015, Ball was going back and forth between Memphis and Columbus where his young daughter Makayla lived.
Boykin, a 2008 graduate of New Hope High School southeast of Columbus, testified later that the driver of the car, Shannon Brewer, did not immediately pull over and that Ball jumped from it and fled the scene. Boykin chased Ball on foot.
The pursuing officer, who is white, testified later that he got within close range of Ball and shot him with a taser, causing him to fall on his back. Boykin said later that he saw then that the young man was holding a gun in his right hand. Ball got up and began running again and, at this point Boykin’s legal team says, Ball turned his body to the right, facing Boykin as if to shoot him.
The officer’s attorneys told the Mississippi Free Press that Boykin fired his service weapon in self-defense, hitting Ball twice, with one bullet entering his arm and then his chest cavity and another in the buttock. Ball’s family says police were slow to allow treatment or to allow transport to the hospital. He was pronounced dead at 11:12 p.m. at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle due to blood loss.
CPD said in 2015 that a handgun was found “within arm’s reach” of Ball’s body when other officers arrived at the scene of the shooting. “The medical examiner who did the autopsy testified under oath that the bullet entry wounds on Mr. Ball were consistent with Officer Boykin’s narrative that Mr. Ball was turning to point his gun at officer Boykin,” his lead attorney Jeff Reynolds told the Mississippi Free Press on June 1.
A different CPD officer had reported the Taurus 9mm handgun found covered in Ball’s blood stolen from his home several months before on Aug. 5, 2015. Ball was not a suspect in that robbery.
Boykin also said later that Ball fled because he had already faced drug charges and, that night, possessed “substantial amounts of cocaine and marijuana.” Boykin’s attorneys told the Mississippi Free Press this week that he possessed cocaine, marijuana, Xanax and hydrocodone when Boykin shot him. At the time, however, the City of Columbus denied allegations that Ball possessed a substantial amount of illicit drugs when he was stopped, and news reports said marijuana was found on his body.
Records show inconsistent timelines for Boykin’s pursuit of Ball. CPD’s official report says the traffic stop happened at 10:08 p.m., and they found Ball after the shooting at 10:30 p.m, a block and a half away from the site of the traffic stop. But court documents show that Boykin did not fire his taser until 10:49 p.m.
Boykin’s attorney, Jeff Reynolds, told the Mississippi Free Press that a taser expert claimed the taser’s clock was suffering from “clock drift” and was not functioning properly. Reynolds also said Boykin was back at the police station by 10:49 p.m. after shooting Ball.
Ricky Ball’s family denies that he attempted to shoot Boykin. “I’ve been around him all my life … and he was never that type of person,” cousin Ernesto Ball, of Columbus, told the Mississippi Free Press on May 30. “He had a good heart, he believed in giving and helping people, and he’s never had any run-ins with a police officer or done harm to anyone, period.”
They also believe the gun and drugs might have been planted, which the police deny.
Mississippi’s Notoriously Slow Justice System
The Ricky Ball case was one where the City of Columbus sided with the victim of a police shooting, as residents protested Ball’s death in the majority-black northeast Mississippi city of 23,000 residents. The City fired Boykin shortly after the shooting in late 2015 for not using his body cameras—the only camera footage available started 30 seconds after the shooting, CPD said in 2015. Boykin also faced other violations such as having an “unauthorized civilian ride-along passenger,” Alisha Stanford, who was later identified as his fiancee, in the vehicle with the CPD officers who initiated the traffic stop.
Boykin was also fired for inappropriate social-media posts. These posts allegedly featured derogatory language against African Americans, women and disabled people, the Associated Press reported in 2016. The Mississippi Free Press could not locate the exact language of the posts by press time.
In turn, Boykin sued the City of Columbus for wrongful termination. Boykin’s attorney Jim Waide confirmed in an interview that the case was settled in 2016, with details not released. Boykin was not reinstated after the settlement. Officer Branch returned to the police force after being placed on leave after the incident, but Officer Young did not, WCBI reported in 2016.
Scott Colom became the new official prosecutor in Boykin’s case when he was elected district attorney within weeks of Ball’s death. He became the first African-American district attorney to represent a majority-white district in Mississippi’s history, serving Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay and Noxubee counties.
Upon taking office in early 2016, Colom turned Boykin’s manslaughter case over to then-Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. In turn, Hood took the case before a grand jury who indicted Boykin of manslaughter on Sept. 6, 2016.
The case against Boykin lingered without going to trial in Mississippi’s notoriously slow justice system with the officer out on $20,000 bail for another three-and-half years. District Attorney Colom speculates that this is due to the fact that Boykin’s legal team brought motions to dismiss the charges two or three times, but all were denied. Additionally, a Lowndes County judge ruled that due to intense publicity surrounding the case in Columbus, the trial had to be moved to Walthall County. No trial date was ever set.
By May 2020, Mississippi was six months past Jim Hood’s defeat for governor and the defeat of a black woman, Jennifer Riley-Collins, for the attorney general’s job, replaced by a conservative white woman attorney general who was previously state treasurer. The state was deep into a COVID-19 crisis, arguing whether or not to reopen, when George Floyd died at the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin, in Minneapolis, Minn. It was in the midst of the uproar and as Black Lives Matter protests took to the streets when the word broke in Columbus.
On May 28, 2020, Attorney General Lynn Fitch had reversed the work of her predecessor in a two-paragraph statement, dismissing with prejudice the charges of manslaughter posted against Canyon Boykin. The decision to dismiss with prejudice is rare and means the decision is final, and no amount of new evidence or testimony can reopen the case.
Since Fitch’s decision, more than 6,000 people had signed a petition as of June 5 calling for her to dismiss the case without prejudice so a higher court can review the evidence.
In Fitch’s statement issued to WCBI-TV, who broke the story, she said that “all evidence … points to necessary self-defense.” She wrote that a team of legal experts had reviewed the evidence again in recent months and found that Boykin acted in self-defense.
Jeff Reynolds, the head of Boykin’s legal team, told the Mississippi Free Press in an interview last week that the State of Mississippi’s highest-ranking woman official made the right decision. “I so greatly admire Attorney General Fitch for doing the right thing and dismissing the indictment against Officer Boykin,” he said. “An indictment that should have never happened in the first place.”
The officer who shot Ricky Ball, now buried at Memorial Cemetery in Columbus, was a free man.
‘A Lot of Pain, A Lot of Hurt and a Lot of Despair’
“It’s a slap in the face,” Columbus native David Horton II said May 31 of Fitch’s move to drop charges against Boykin.
Horton was an organizer of a peaceful May 30 rally at Leigh Mall in Columbus, and another on June 1 in front of the Columbus Police Station, with hundreds attending in person and thousands watching online as local protesters demanded the release of evidence and an explanation for the dismissal of charges against Canyon Boykin. Horton felt a calling to speak up about what he believes are Fitch’s injustices, he said, adding that both the owner of Leigh Mall and the Columbus police chief expressed support for the peaceful nature of the protest.
Horton, 28, said he sees similarities between himself and Ball, both young, black men and fathers. “It pains me to know that someone could take me from my child, and there’s nothing I could do about it,” he said.
Ricky Ball was “ murdered in cold blood by a police officer in Columbus, Mississippi,” Horton said bluntly—an allegation Boykin and his team of his attorney flatly deny.
Still, Horton mentioned that he has received threats of violence and against “our lives,” as he put it. That response, he said, will not stop him from speaking out, as he was already coordinating a large rally in front of the Columbus Police Department days later.
Ball’s family, as well as many in the Columbus community, feel as though justice has not been served. Ernesto Ball, Ricky’s cousin, says that receiving a two-paragraph explanation for Fitch’s decision to dismiss the charges, after five years of fighting for justice in the case, has caused the family “a lot of pain, a lot of hurt and a lot of despair.”
He describes the attorney general’s decision as “unbelievable.”
Fitch did, however, meet with Ricky Ball’s mother on March 28, the day she dropped charges against Boykin.
Horton says Fitch’s decision has hurt the relationship between the attorney general’s office and the black community in Columbus, a relationship already on the brink. Fitch, he says, has shown a lack of respect to the black community and the Ball family. With a long history of unfair rulings against black plaintiffs, this case is another example in a long line of judicial inequality, he told the Mississippi Free Press, calling Fitch’s brief, last-minute explanation to a grieving mother and a grieving community “unacceptable.”
District Attorney: Fitch Decision ‘A Gut Punch’
Lowndes County’s district attorney, a black native of the city, attended the May 30 protest at Leigh Mall. “It was powerful,” Scott Colom told the Mississippi Free Press last week.
“The people spoke from their hearts and expressed the feelings of frustration at the attorney general’s dismissal of the case without an explanation in the middle of a national crisis surrounding black men and women being killed for no reason,” said Colom, who recently published an MFP Voices essay about a separate case in the Mississippi Free Press.
The district attorney called Fitch’s decision “a gut punch and a slap in the face.”
Fitch’s office has shown a complete lack of transparency in the way it handled the case, Colom said, including its failure to release evidence to the public and its lackluster explanation. In 2016, when Colom forwarded the case to Hood’s office, he said he had a “trust” in the system and the people within the attorney general’s organization. Now, after the way the new leadership has handled this case, the trust between the community and the justice system is challenged further, he said. Colom is “disappointed, hurt, frustrated and angry” at Fitch’s decision to release only a two-paragraph statement at what he called “the worst time possible.”
Colom says the people of Columbus deserve to see the evidence Fitch used to make her decision, and a more thorough explanation. Doing this would start building a bridge of trust between the community and the attorney general, he said.
On May 31, Colom sent a letter to the attorney general urging her to send him the case file within seven days in order to “provide answers to the public.” Colom confirmed today that Fitch’s office said they will comply with his request. On June 8, Colom said, Fitch’s had the files delivered to his office, and he’s examining them.
Ernesto Ball believes that since Fitch took over the case, the Ball family has been treated unfairly. They had to deal with a new staff there, communication worsened, and they “stopped getting answers” until the brief meeting on May 28, he said.
Boykin’s attorney Reynolds confirmed that he had regular communication with the attorney general’s office during recent months as the case was being reinvestigated. Ernesto Ball posits that those meetings helped influence the attorney general’s decision.
Reynolds says meetings between a defense attorney and the attorney general’s office is common practice and absolutely within their rights. He notes that regardless of meetings, Fitch made the correct decision to dismiss the charges because “the evidence was undisputed that Mr. Ball … turned and pointed a pistol at Officer Boykin who was then forced to shoot him in self-defense.”
Many people in Columbus are not so sure, though.
Donna Ladd contributed to this report.
Correction: The editor inadvertently added that Lynn Fitch was formerly the agriculture commissioner. She was state treasurer. The story has been corrected, and we apologize for the error.
Editor’s Note: Scott Colom, interviewed for this story, was an early donor to the Mississippi Free Press. Neither he nor other donors have influence over editorial and reporting decisions.