Dorothy Elliott, 81, still breaks down when she talks about the death of her son Archie Elliott III, on Friday, June 18, 1993, when he was fatally shot in police custody at the corners of Marbury Drive and Kipling Parkway in District Heights, Maryland.
Elliott III was headed home to Forestville from a construction job in Virginia when a police officer stopped his car because it was swerving. He was tested and failed a sobriety test. Then what happened next remains an unresolved matter.
Mrs. Elliott, a Prince George’s County school teacher, and Archie Elliott Jr. a Virginia judge, concede that their son may have been drinking, but they are sure he didn’t deserve what happened next.
“When Archie was slain, people looked at the circumstances around what happened and they just couldn’t believe it,” Mrs. Elliott told the Informer. “They shot my son 14 times while handcuffed with his hands behind his back sitting in the front seat of that District Heights Municipal Police Cruiser.”
What Police Say Happened That Fateful Night
The thorough mother knows all of the officers by name as she told the story of what happened on June 18, 1993. She said District Heights police Officer Jason Leavitt spotted Elliott III driving erratically and stopped the vehicle.
Elliott III failed several sobriety tests and as a result, Leavitt handcuffed his hands behind his back and placed him in the front seat of the police cruiser.
But the District Heights and Prince George’s County Police investigators said Leavitt failed to properly search Elliott III, who was not wearing a shirt.
Prince George’s County police Officer Wayne Cheney then arrived on the scene moments later. The two officers said they noticed Elliott III, who was handcuffed, managed to point a .22 caliber revolver at them and claimed he disobeyed orders to drop the gun, and so they opened fire– fatally shooting him.
The Maryland State Chief Medical Examiner said at the time that Elliott III sustained injuries on the right side of the patrol car’s passenger-side door. He was wearing a seatbelt when shots were fired.
Capt. James White, a spokesman for the Prince George’s County Police Department at the time, said that both officers fired their semi-automatic handguns. But the police were peppered with questions as to how Elliott III could lean forward while holding a .22-caliber revolver while handcuffed.
District Heights Police Chief Michael Conboy said in media reports at the time, “they are taught to shoot to kill,” when officers believe their safety is in jeopardy.
The shooting of Elliott III sparked probes, but the county prosecutor at the time, former States Attorney Alex Williams, never indicted the officers, and his successor Jack Johnson didn’t-either.
“They alleged that Archie had a handgun and they discharged their weapons 22 times,” said the octogenarian mother who started to cry as she talked about facing one closed legal door after another.
The Community Reacts: A 30-Year Fight for Justice
Veteran Radio Host Joe Madison was the morning man at WOL when the incident occurred.
“It was a travesty of abuse of police power” Madison said.
“After the grand jury ended without an indictment, we appealed to the 4th Circuit in Richmond and they refused to prosecute. Then we appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and the court declined to hear the case without comment,” Mrs. Elliott said.
Feeling that her lawyer was ineffective, the mother launched a weekly protest at the Prince George’s County Courthouse and even a march to Annapolis.
“The Archie Elliott campaign was going for more than a year,” Madison said. “We would picket at the County Court House every day to get the State Attorney to reopen the case, but he was playing to the police union because he was running for County Executive.”
Kyle McAfee, a community activist said in an interview this week, “People couldn’t believe that a man could be shot and killed handcuffed in a police car.”
It was such outrage that sparked folks to unapologetically fight towards justice for the slain man.
“I was sued by the officers because I used the term murder on WOL and we were 100 percent behind Archie Elliott,” said Madison “The purpose was to get an independent investigation.”
“This was before Breanna Taylor, and Trayvon Martin, and Freddie Gray and George Floyd,” Madison said. “This was a time when Black radio made a difference and Cathy Hughes clearly encouraged us.”
While the deaths of Martin, Gray, Floyd and Eric Garner, produced national protests, Mrs. Elliott said there was only so much she could do when her son was killed.
“Things might have been different if we had been more vocal and there was massive resistance or the internet,” she said. “We demonstrated 22 consecutive Wednesdays and I would take off to be at the protest.”
Though Elliott III’s case did not get the notoriety many police shootings get today, Madison said it was still important to fight.
“I wish at the time we had an attorney like Ben Crump. It was such an injustice that rallied Mrs. Elliott and Judge Elliott,” Madison said. “He was shot multiple times a mile from his home and he was strapped in the front seat of the police cruiser. It was important to use my platform at the time to review the case and it didn’t happen.”
Continuing the Legacy of Archie Elliott III, Changing the Culture
“We started the scholarship fund two years after his death,” Mrs. Elliott said. “We raised $7,000 and gave four students scholarships to HBCUs. The year before we gave out $2,500 in scholarships.”
In the years since Elliot III was killed, some area leaders have worked to improve the relationship between residents and police.
Former District Heights Mayor and current Prince George’s County Councilmember Jonathan Medlock (D-District 6) said he tried to “change the culture,” of the police department from within when served as mayor in 2018.
“As far as police were concerned I brought in new officers and a new culture,” said Medlock. 49. “During my time, there was the Black Liberation Movement, and you had to change culture from within.
Medlock also said, “If we take advantage of the advances we have in policing, the police and the community can do it together, but we are still so splintered. Whatever we do, we have to work together as a community.”
Activists note the importance of the mother and educator’s continued freedom fight.
“‘She is teaching the most valuable lesson that [students] could learn,’” Mrs. Elliott said others comment, when learning about her work to gain justice for her son.
As June 2023 marks the 30th anniversary of her son’s death, Mrs. Elliott chooses to still celebrate Elliott III’s life.
“Had Archie lived, he would be 55 this December.”