The Union County Courthouse in New Albany was constructed in 1909. The courthouse is said to be named for Union District, South Carolina, the former home of many of the county's settlers. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

A 24-year-old former Ole Miss student accused of stabbing a Tennessee man in the neck in 2019 will graduate from another school days before his attempted murder trial begins.

Despite being indicted, New Albany resident Lane Mitchell was admitted to the university and attended between 2019 and 2020 before withdrawing over accusations he assaulted two women on campus, according to court records. 

Mitchell went on to enroll at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Cordova, Tennessee, which has undergraduate and associate degree programs. The school will hold its graduation Friday — three days before Mitchell’s trial is set to begin May 8 in the Union County Circuit Court, according to court documents. 

The 2019 victim, Russell Rogers, nearly bled out and required surgery to repair major blood vessels — the carotid artery, which supplies blood to the brain; the vertebral artery, which runs through the spine; and the jugular vein, which runs from the brain to the heart, according to court records. 

As a result of the stabbing, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and continues to experience symptoms.

“Although it has been more than three years since the near fatal stabbing, Russell has not fully recovered,” Rogers’ conservator, his father Robert Rogers, wrote in a 2022 court filing. 

Meanwhile, Mitchell is looking beyond graduation. Court records say he has applied to the West Point Military Academy and U.S. Air Force Academy, with letters of support from Republican U.S. Rep. Trent Kelly and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker. 

A spokesperson for Mid-America Baptist Baptist Theological Seminary declined to comment Thursday about Mitchell and the case. 

The 2019 stabbing and additional accusations of violence

On Feb. 9, 2019, Collierville resident Rogers went to New Albany’s Tallahatchie Gourmet, a restaurant where he had been a regular customer, according to court records. 

Rogers had been at the restaurant for several hours when then-18-year-old Mitchell arrived. 

Within an hour of his arrival, Mitchell took a knife from the bar, held it behind his back and walked toward Rogers and a female waitress, according to descriptions and still images from the restaurant included in court records. Once the waitress left, Mitchell approached the unarmed Rogers from behind and stabbed him three times in the neck. 

The two men had not met prior to the stabbing, court records say. 

In March 2019, a grand jury indicted Mitchell of attempted murder – an escalation from the aggravated assault and battery charge he was initially arrested on. 

Later that year, Mitchell applied to Ole Miss and was accepted into the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. Several court filings by the prosecution say Mitchell was accused of assaulting two students in 2020 and was charged with assault and battery, harassment and alcohol consumption.

He withdrew about two weeks later on Feb. 28, according to court documents. 

A spokesperson from Ole Miss declined to comment Tuesday about Mitchell and the case, citing the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

A copy of the university’s undergraduate application shared with Mississippi Today and confirmed by a spokesperson includes the following question: “Have you been convicted of a felony or do you currently have felony charges against you?” 

A spokesperson did not respond to questions including whether failing to disclose a pending felony charge or conviction would disqualify a person from admission or if they could face consequences such as expulsion if the university learned after admission that the person did not disclose the information. 

Similar questions were asked to a Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary spokesperson, who directed the reporter to the seminary’s catalog, which includes its admissions policies. Applicants to all programs must authorize a criminal background check, according to the catalog

The prosecution subpoenaed Mitchell’s conduct and disciplinary records from his time at Ole Miss to use as evidence. His defense team is asking the judge to exclude that information from trial, according to court records. 

Assault allegations from Ole Miss were the focus of the prosecution’s request for the judge to revoke Mitchell’s $50,000 bond or set more restrictions to ensure public safety in February 2022, according to court records. 

In that 2022 filing, the prosecution detailed how Mitchell had been drinking and allegedly tried to grab two female students he knew at the honors college formal. 

The prosecution laid out what happened next: Weeks after the incident had been reported to university staff, Mitchell emailed Tracy Murry, director of the Office of Conflict Resolution and Student Conduct, asking if he could withdraw from the university to avoid charges, according to court documents. 

“I would appreciate it if you could ask the other party if it would suit them to leave the charges unresolved as long as I withdrew,” Mitchell wrote in an email that is directly quoted and attached as an exhibit in the prosecution’s filing. “I am considering this option but I would like assurance that they would not press the issue if I withdrew.”

A university spokesperson did not respond to questions about Mitchell being able to withdraw without going through the conduct process. 

In a recent filing, the defense described the Ole Miss incident as “an alcohol-induced incident” with a friend that is “quite a common occurrence amongst young college students.” 

Victor Fleitas, a member of Mitchell’s defense team, said in an email he tends to avoid making comments out of court during a case and after. 

But after receiving a request for comment from Mississippi Today last week, he raised concerns about how reporting could affect his client’s right to a fair trial and how the news organization accessed Mitchell’s educational records from Ole Miss. The email was shared with Judge Kent Smith and attorneys for the defense, prosecution and an attorney for Rogers’ conservator. 

Mitchell’s defense team argues that the public – including Mississippi Today – should have never had access to Mitchell’s educational records, which are protected under FERPA, according to an April 28 motion for a protective order.

Those records, the defense argued, were meant to be filed under seal with the Union County Circuit Clerk’s office, but they were included in the public file, including on the Mississippi Electronic Courts system. 

On Tuesday, Smith approved a protective order which orders Mitchell’s Ole Miss records to be sealed and attempts to prohibit anyone – including the media – who viewed the records from publishing the information or disclosing it. The judge’s order appears to violate First Amendment protections, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported on Thursday.

The judge also approved a gag order to prevent all parties, witnesses and attorneys from posting or commenting about the case on social media, traditional media or other forms of mass communication until the jury reaches a verdict. 

“(I)t is apparent that someone is attempting to influence the outcome of this case by means of the presentation of admissible evidence at trial,” the defense wrote in its motion for a gag order. “This outside influence stands the real possibility of tainting the jury pool.” 

Judge Smith has not issued orders for pending motions that would allow or dismiss the following: 

  • Designation of a psychologist who treated Mitchell as an expert to testify for the defense about his psychological profile.  
  • Exclusion of investigative records from Ole Miss and testimony from those involved.

He is set to rule on the remaining motions Friday at the Tippah County Circuit Court in Ripley. 

Union County District Attorney Ben Creekmore declined to comment. His office handled Mitchell’s case until 2021, which is when it recused itself over conflict of interest. Although the DA’s office did not specify the conflict, Mitchell notes on his Facebook page that he was campaign manager for state Rep. Sam Creekmore IV, a Republican from New Albany, who is the district attorney’s brother.

This led to the Attorney General’s Office taking over the prosecution, and the current attorneys assigned to Mitchell’s case are Special Assistant Attorney General Jessica Malone and Assistant Attorney General Bilbo Mitchell. A spokesperson from the Attorney General’s Office said it does not comment on active cases. 

Trial to feature video of stabbing and expert testimony

Video surveillance from the restaurant showing before, during and after the stabbing is expected to be used as evidence in trial. The defense tried to have the video excluded in favor of basing the timeline of events on witness statements, but the judge ruled the video was proper and admissible. 

The prosecutors and defense have each secured experts to testify about different versions of what happened at Tallahatchie Gourmet in 2019, including what led to the stabbing and alleged attempted murder. 

Defense expert Matthew Campbell, a retired FBI agent and an active shooter instructor, interviewed Mitchell, who said he stabbed Rogers because Mitchell believed the man had a gun and wanted to hurt Mitchell’s father, the restaurant’s bartender, and a female waitress. Campbell concluded that Rogers acted within reason and other rational people believed Rogers was going to commit a violent crime. 

He provided a breakdown of “concerning behaviors” he observed Rogers exhibit in the video, which are based on a 2018 study by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit about pre-attack behaviors of active shooters. These behaviors included aggressive body language and putting his hands in his pockets. 

“Lane did not believe he was intervening in a fist fight, he believed he was intervening in a gun fight,” Campbell wrote in the report. 

Investigators found that Rogers did not have a gun on him the night of the stabbing, according to court records. 

Mitchell’s fear was informed by growing up during an age of active shooters and drills practiced in school, Campbell wrote in his report.  

Jennifer Coffindaffer, the prosecution’s expert, also worked for the FBI and as a firearms instructor for law enforcement and civilians. 

Her expert testimony is meant to discuss the FBI study that is the foundation of the defense expert’s analysis and why active shooter protocols are not applicable in the case, according to court documents. 

Coffindaffer reviewed video footage of the stabbing and didn’t see the same aggressive and threatening behaviors Campbell noted in his report that demonstrated that Rogers was an active shooter.

She also noted that Mitchell’s decision to stab Rogers doesn’t follow active shooter training responses taught to civilians, which generally advise people to run away and hide and to only take action against a shooter as a last resort. 

Coffindaffer said there is no evidence of whether Mitchell attended active shooter training before the stabbing. 

Mitchell avoided jail following his arrest

While individuals charged with a violent offense usually wind up in jail, Mitchell instead was allowed to go to Lakeside Behavioral Health in Tennessee shortly after his arrest in 2019.

Half of a psychologist’s report in April looked at Mitchell’s mental health and evaluated him for conditions such as depression and anxiety while the other half was about his social history, including work history and achievements. 

The report lists how Mitchell worked as a page in the Mississippi Capitol for Rep. Mac Huddelston, R-Pontotoc, for a week in February 2019 and as a page for Wicker in the U.S. Senate during the summer of 2018, according to court documents. 

There were also mentions of 4-H membership, a gold medal from the Congressional Award Foundation and Eagle ranking with the Boy Scouts.

There has also been an ongoing fight for medical records for Rogers’ care after the stabbing and Mitchell’s ordered stay at Lakeside Behavioral Health.

The defense has been asking for Rogers’ post-care records from a 2018 federal civil lawsuit he filed against the restaurant and bartender Torrey Mitchell, Lane’s father, that was settled in 2020.

An order in the civil case prevented the records from being disclosed, but Judge Smith approved the release of Rogers’ medical records in February 2022, only to later vacate that order a few months later, according to court records. 

The judge allowed the defense to subpoena some of Rogers’ medical records but denied prosecutors access to Mitchell’s records.

“The defendant wants to use privileged medical records of subsequent treatment of a condition he provoked as justification for stabbing [Rogers],” his conservator wrote in a June 2022 court filing opposing a subpoena. 

In March, Judge Smith approved an order to protect information about any future treatment sought by Rogers, saying he understands how the ability to subpoena medical records could lead to a “chilling effect upon an individual seeking future treatment.”

At the same time, the defense has sought to keep out medical records for when Mitchell was ordered to be taken to Lakeside Behavioral Health. 

Through a 2020 agreed order between the Union County District Attorney’s office and the defense, one of the conditions of bond was that Mitchell be taken to Lakeside Behavioral Health for counseling and remain there until medical professionals determined he could be released, according to court records. 

The district attorney’s office declined to comment about the agreed order. The defense said the records were meant to help the former judge, Kelly Luther, decide whether to set additional bond conditions.

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Mina, a California native, covers the criminal justice system. Before joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Clarion Ledger and newspapers in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and USA Today.