Walker County Sheriff Faces 2 Lawsuits Over Inmate Who Was Naked and Neglected Before Death
The family of a man who died while in the custody of the Walker County Sheriff's Office and a former employee of the jail have filed two separate federal lawsuits related to his death, its alleged cover-up and the wrongful termination of a whistleblower.
The cases revolve around the death of 33-year-old Anthony Don Mitchell, who died on January 26th while in custody after being charged with attempted murder for allegedly shooting at Walker County deputies in early January.
WCSO Faces Wrongful Death Suit
Mitchell's mother, Margaret Mitchell, is the plaintiff and administratrix of his estate in a wrongful death case against Sheriff Nick Smith and public information officer T.J. Armstrong, along with several correctional officers, two medical personnel at the Walker County Jail and an investigator in the case.
The complaint described Mitchell's incarceration and death as "one of the most appalling cases of jail abuse the country has seen."
"The case provides contrasting examples of both the worst of humanity, and also its best," the complaint read. "Without the malice, deliberate indifference, and failure to intervene of nearly a dozen correction officers at the jail, and the cooperation of these officers and their superiors in a scheme to deprive Tony of his civil rights and ultimately of his life, Tony could never have been killed, likely by being placed in a restraint chair in the jail kitchen's walk-in freezer or similar frigid environment and left there for hours. Nor would he have been denied the prompt emergency medical treatment that would have saved him after his removal from that frigid place. But also, without the heroism of a corrections officer who dared to preserve security camera footage on her phone and get the recordings to the estate, it would have been impossible for that estate to dismantle the scheme of silence and lies within the sheriff's department and reconstruct what happened to Tony on the morning of January 26, 2023."
The complaint said Mitchell died after being held in the Walker County Jail for 14 days "under hellish conditions."
The complaint said on the morning of January 26, Mitchell's internal body temperature was 72 degrees Fahrenheit when he arrived at Walker Baptist Hospital in the back seat of a sheriff's vehicle after being brought there by sheriff's deputies "who did not even bother to call an ambulance for him despite his obvious need for emergency medical treatment."
Anthony Mitchell, who was known as "Tony," had a history of drug addiction and was suffering from mental and physical health problems that followed the death of his father.
The complaint said Mitchell's cousin, Steve Mitchell, was the last family member to interact with him when he came to his cousin's house on January 12.
According to the complaint, Steve said Tony appeared to be delusional regarding a story and actions he was taking to locate a box that contained his baby brother's remains that Tony believed were hidden in the walls of his home.
Steve called 911 to get Tony assistance, asking the dispatcher if they could send someone to check on his cousin, telling the dispatcher "Tony was talking out of his head about portals to heaven and hell, and that he appeared to be having a mental breakdown and that he was in an extremely degraded condition."
Mitchell allegedly fired at least one shot at deputies upon their arrival and fled into a wooded area behind his home where he was later apprehended. He was taken into custody where he was charged with attempted murder.
The complaint noted at the time of Mitchell's arrest, he was suffering "from serious medical and psychiatric needs, including but not limited to severe drug addiction, psychosis and malnourishment."
The complaint said T.J. Armstrong told Steve "they were going to set Tony's bond high enough that he would not be able to bond out, and assured Steve that Tony would receive medical evaluation and treatment in jail."
"Armstrong told him 'we're going to detox him and then we'll see how much of his brain is left' or words to that effect," the complaint read.
Mitchell's "Naked" Stay in Jail
Court documents said for the duration of Mitchell's stay, which began on January 12 at the Walker County Jail, he was kept in an isolation cell in the booking area, which is not intended to house inmates but meant to hold detainees temporarily during the booking process.
"The cell lacked a bed or other furnishings," the complaint said. "There was only a drain in the floor that could be used as a toilet. The cell was bare cement, the equivalent of a dog kennel. But unlike a dog, Tony was not even given a mat to sleep on."
Whistleblower Captures Footage of Mitchell's Stay
WCSO also faces a second lawsuit in connection to Mitchell's death, where former WCSO corrections officer Karen Kelly claims she was fired for releasing video footage of Mitchell's stay in the jail that paints a different narrative of events that were released from the sheriff's office.
"Karen Kelly changed the narrative through her actions in this case," the second complaint read. "She publicized a video of the abuse leading to the death of an inmate named Anthony Mitchell so the horror of his death was not buried with him. When the sheriff learned Kelly had exposed the crimes of his department, he retaliated and fired her."
At the time of her termination, Kelly was working as an acting supervisor in the jail. She named Sheriff Nick Smith, T.J. Armstrong and an investigator at WCSO as defendants in her case.
Kelly's complaint said Mitchell was being held in cell number five, also known as the "drunk tank" because he was on suicide watch and was naked in the cell most of the time.
The document said Kelly last saw Mitchell on January 25 at 6:00 a.m. and said Mitchell was "sitting on the ground inside of his cell and he spoke to the plaintiff, likely asking for more water, through the cell door as she was clocking out to go home."
The second complaint said Kelly began hearing "talk in the community" about what happened to Mitchell and rumors about the physical state he was in when he left the jail prior to his death.
Kelly expressed her concerns about Mitchell to a lieutenant, who told her to "search the video to see what happened to him" because both Kelly and the lieutenant were not working at the time he suffered a medical emergency.
"As she searched through the video, plaintiff discovered video recorded at around 8:54 a.m. on January 26th taken in the sally port, which is where inmates are brought in for booking," the complaint said. "This video depicted employees of the sheriff's office carrying Mitchell in an obvious state of unconsciousness or near death and shoving his limp body into a prisoner transport vehicle, a non-medical police unit."
Kelly recorded the video on her phone on or around January 29 or January 30 and sent it to the lieutenant. She told the lieutenant what she saw "weighed heavy on her heart or words to that effect, and that if that was somebody in her family, she would want to know the truth of what happened to him."
Video Footage Findings
The wrongful death suit documents said in one of the first video clips the estate's lawyers have of Tony, shows him "naked, being dragged out of holding cell number five, likely on or around January 15" and tased by one of the listed correction officers named in the suit.
The complaint said a second clip showed two correctional officers dragging Tony from the shower located in a bathroom in the booking area.
Lawyers in the suit said "Tony continued to suffer from serious medical and psychiatric needs while incarcerated as a pretrial detainee at the jail and that the needs "were obvious to every corrections officer and all jail personnel who came into contact with him."
"Attempting to Cover Up the Truth"
The wrongful death suit said defendant Armstrong provided a statement to news media regarding Mitchell's death, which said
On Thursday, January 27th, an inmate in the Walker County Jail was provided a routine medical check by jail medical staff. Medical staff determined the inmate needed to be transported to the hospital for further evaluation. The inmate was alert and conscious when he left the facility and arrived at the hospital. Shortly after arrival at the hospital, the inmate suffered a medical emergency and became unresponsive. Life saving efforts were performed by hospital staff and the inmate was ultimately revived. Unfortunately, a short time later, the inmate passed away.
Kelly's lawsuit said she "realized Officer Armstrong had provided a false statement to the media in what appeared to be an attempt to hide the fact that Mitchell was so close to death at the point the sheriff's office employees finally decided to take him to the hospital that it was too late for him to survive."
The wrongful death suit said Armstrong called Mitchell's cousin, Steve, and told him "for the last week and a half 'we've had a time with Tony." He said Mitchell refused to eat, refused to speak with jail personnel and allegedly refused to consent to a psychiatric evaluation.
The document also stated that Armstrong was aware that Mitchell had been hypothermic prior to his transportation to the jail and on the morning he was taken to the hospital, his body temperature started dropping.
The document also said that Armstrong "falsely told Steve that when deputies got Tony to the hospital, the doctor had asked Tony to sit up, and Tony sat up, and that at this point, he had a massive heart attack."
The document said contrary to the statement Armstrong released to the press, Mitchell was not "alert and conscious" when he left the facility and further video footage showed jail transport officers carrying Mitchell's limp body into a garage area at the jail.
The document said as the deputies approached the SUV Mitchell was going to be transported in, they laid Mitchell down on the ground "letting his head fall back on the cement while they stand around, seeming to deliberate how best to place the body in the vehicle."
The ER provider made a note in Mitchell's medical records, which said
I have limited information on this patient other that was provided by sheriff deputies that accompanied the patient to the hospital. I was told by one the deputies that the patient has been incarcerated since January 12th. I was also told by the deputies that the patient has not been eating or drinking for several days. One of our nurses notes the sheriffs moving the patient out of the vehicle and putting him in a wheelchair and he went outside and offered to move him to a stretcher. At that point he was noted to have agonal respirations breathing 2-4 times a minute. He was rushed into the ER and moved to our stretcher. He was unresponsive apneic and pulseless and cold to the touch. CPR was started and handcuffs were removed. His mother arrived in the emergency room about 3-1/2 hours into resuscitation and gave additional history. She requested that we not continue resuscitation.
Another note said Mitchell was "unresponsive but occasionally made some agonal movements including swallowing and minor movements of an arm or leg.
Mitchell's lawyers said contrary to Armstrong's statement to his cousin, "at no point do the medical records indicate that Tony sat up, or that he had a heart attack while at the jail."
The doctor's notes also added,
I am not sure what circumstances the patient was held in incarceration but it is difficult to understand a rectal temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit 22 degrees centigrade while someone is incarcerated in jail. The cause of his hypothermia is not clear. I do not know if he could have been exposed to a cold environment. I do believe that hypothermia was the ultimate cause of his death."
The lawsuit said, "based on these circumstances, it appears that Tiny was strapped into a restraint chair during the night of January 25 to January 26 and placed in the jail kitchen's walk-in freezer or similar frigid environment for an extended time, possibly as punishment for deputies who had 'had a time with Tony,' or as punishment for allegedly shooting at deputies."
The lawsuit said security footage from the kitchen area still exists, however Kelly did not capture footage on her phone before 4:00 a.m., at which Mitchell point had already been taken back to his isolation cell and she did not know how to check the footage from the jail kitchen overnight.
Five Hours Pass Before Mitchell is Taken to the Hospital
Court documents said following being taken from the freezer or other frigid environment, Mitchell's health declined for at least five hours before he was taken to the hospital to receive medical treatment.
Video footage from the first released video showed several officers and the nurse practitioner in the holding cell around 4:00 a.m. on January 26 with Mitchell seen lying on the floor of the holding cell.
The filing said at various points, the workers could be seen "clowning and laughing as Tony lies motionless and naked on the bare cement floor... obviously in severe medical distress and in need of immediate emergency medical attention.
The document said the nurse practitioner entered the cell and spent a brief time with Mitchell but did not call for an ambulance.
Mitchell was also seen on footage lying "among what appears to be piles of trash on the floor of the isolation cell" and was seen raising his head and peering out of the door, but one of the officers "closes the door of the cell and turns out the light, leaving Tony alone in the dark."
In the second video provided to Mitchell's estate, which was taken around 6:00 a.m., two officers were seen bringing a sleeping mat into the cell and it "appears to be the first time he was provided any kind of padding to lay down on during his two weeks of incarceration."
The video shows between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m., a nurse was seen standing at the door of the cell but did not provide any medical assistance to Mitchell. Two deputies were seen "sweeping trash out of the cell" and they were allegedly "sweeping or mopping around Tony as he lies dying on the floor, removing signs of the squalor in which Tony was forced to spend his final days."
In a video taken around 8:30 a.m., a deputy was seen taking a wheelchair into Mitchell's cell and Mitchell was later brought out of the cell in the wheelchair, noting he had on an orange jumpsuit in what documents say is the first time Mitchell appears to be dressed.
Mitchell's body was seen falling out of the wheelchair while outside of the cell and was seen being lifted by deputies to be placed back into it. Deputies were also seen shackling his feet as "his body made slow, seemingly spasmodic movements, but was "still alive at this point."
The video showed Mitchell being picked up and dragged back into the cell which was said to "conceal his presence as a new female detainee is brought into the booking area and processed," which they said further delayed Mitchell's access to needed emergency medical care.
The documents said by the time Mitchell arrived to the hospital with deputies at 9:23 a.m., over five hours had passed since he was seen naked in the cell on the floor.
The documents said despite the efforts of emergency personnel at Walker Baptist Hospital to warm Mitchell's body and over three hours of continual attempts to resuscitate him, he was pronounced dead at 1:15 p.m.
Whistleblower Fired Following Video Release
Kelly said in her complaint the video and allegedly false statement released by WCSO "caused extreme emotional distress and she needed someone outside of her department to see what had happened," prompting her to share the video with another correctional officer at another law enforcement agency.
The complaint said Kelly was concerned the video would be deleted or recorded over at the sheriff's office and it "needed to be seen by others before that happened so the truth of what happened to Mr. Mitchell would be preserved."
Kelly said she understood sharing the video might result in her being retaliated against by the sheriff's office "but thought that the truth of what happened to Mitchell getting out was more important than her own job security."
The video quickly began to spread across social media and community members were discussing it.
The complaint said on February 7 while at work, the investigator and Armstrong went to booking and told Kelly's lieutenant that they needed to speak with her. She went and met with the two, along with Sheriff Smith in his office.
Kelly asked if she needed a lawyer and the investigator said she did not because the matter was an in-house investigation, but was told she could have a witness present if she wanted and invited her lieutenant into the conversation.
The investigator informed Kelley that it had been brought to their attention that a video had been leaked to the public, had Armstrong play the video and then asked her if she knew about the footage, to which she said "yes" and that she had recorded a version of the video.
The investigator asked Kelly to whom she sent the video and she responded that it was sent to the lieutenant and another law enforcement person outside of the department on February 3. She was also asked where she recorded the video and told them she did so in the jail's central control area.
The investigator continued questioning Kelly on why she leaked the video before her phone was taken by another investigator to retrieve any other videos. She was sent back to the jail and her phone was later returned to her.
After receiving the phone, she saw she had a missed call from her captain, who told her following a conversation with the jail administrator, said she was being sent home until the investigation into the leaked video was complete.
On February 10, a deputy wearing a body camera hand-delivered a letter to Kelly with the subject stating, "Termination of Employment" which was backdated on February 9 and signed by Sheriff Smith.
Kelly is suing for first amendment retaliation, stating she engaged in constitutionally protected speech when she published the video.
The Walker County Sheriff's Office told local media outlets they do not have any comments on the matter and will release any statements following the conclusion of the investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation.
Stay connected with the Tuscaloosa Thread for updates on this story as they become available.