WALKER COUNTY, Ala. (WIAT) – The mother of Anthony “Tony” Mitchell, a Walker County man who died in police custody in January, has filed a federal lawsuit against multiple jail officials, including Sheriff Nick Smith, alleging that authorities deprived the man of his constitutional rights by leaving him in the jail’s walk-in freezer “or similar frigid environment” for hours.
“This is one of the most appalling cases of jail abuse the country has seen,” the 37-page federal lawsuit begins. “On the night of January 25 to January 26, 2023, Anthony Don Mitchell (“Tony”) froze to death while incarcerated at the Walker County Jail.”
The case, lawyers for the family wrote in the complaint, “raises an appalling question: how does a man literally freeze to death while incarcerated in a modern, climate-controlled jail, in the custody and care of corrections officers?”
The suit alleges that Mitchell was “likely… placed in a restraint chair in the jail kitchen’s walk-in freezer or similar frigid environment and left there for hours.”
Only with the release of an internal surveillance video recorded by a correctional officer did what happened to Mitchell begin to come to light, according to Jon Goldfarb, a lawyer representing Mitchell’s family. That correctional officer was later fired by the sheriff’s department, according to the lawyer.
A surveillance video obtained and first reported by CBS 42 shows what the family says appears to be their loved one being carried into the loading area of the Walker County Jail. In it, Mitchell is limp, his head and feet dangling as uniformed personnel — “Sheriff” emblazoned on one of their vests — lay his body just outside a marked police SUV. In total, four uniformed officials then work to put him into the police vehicle.
The video contradicts an earlier statement from the Walker County Sheriff’s Office claiming Mitchell was “alert and conscious” when he left the jail for transport to a local hospital.
The newly filed lawsuit also includes quotes from notes included in Mitchell’s medical records written by an ER doctor after the Walker County man was transported to a local hospital the day of his death.
“I am not sure what circumstances the patient was held in incarceration but it is difficult to understand a rectal temperature of 72° F 22° centigrade while someone is incarcerated in jail,” the doctor’s notes said, according the federal lawsuit. “The cause of his hypothermia is not clear. It is possible he had an underlying medical condition resulting in hypothermia. 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.”
Screenshots from additional surveillance video included in the lawsuit show that Mitchell was naked during his detention. He was placed, the suit said, in a concrete isolation cell for the duration of his two-week stint in the jail.
“The cell lacked a bed or other furnishing,” the suit 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.”
At least five hours passed from the time Mitchell was removed from the “frigid environment” until he was transported to the hospital, according to the complaint.
T.J. Armstrong, the public information officer for the sheriff’s office, refused to comment on the video published by CBS 42 last week, instead referring all inquiries to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA), which is investigating the death. ALEA has not responded to questions about the video as of publication time.
Jon Goldfarb, a lawyer for Mitchell’s family, said last week that the family believes that all video of their loved one captured by the Walker County Sheriff’s Office should be released to the public.
“If the Sheriff does not have anything to hide, then all the videos of Mr. Anthony Mitchell should be preserved and released to the public,” the lawyer said in part. “He was obviously not ‘alert and conscious’ when he left the Walker County Jail.”
Mitchell, 33, died in police custody on Jan. 27, state and local officials later confirmed.
Tony Mitchell’s recent interactions with Walker County law enforcement began on Jan. 13, when family members asked police to conduct a welfare check on Mitchell, according to a statement from the Walker County Sheriff’s Office released at the time.
Law enforcement claimed that when they arrived on scene, Mitchell “immediately brandished a handgun, and fire at least one shot at Deputies (sic) before retreating into a wooded area behind his home.”
After a search for Mitchell that included both air and K9 units, Mitchell was arrested and charged with attempted murder, according to police and court records.
“Thankfully,” the sheriff’s office post said, “the day ended with everyone safe.”
In addition to their initial written statement, the Jan. 13 post by the Walker County Sheriff’s Office included an unedited, full-body photo of Mitchell, whose face appeared to be spray-painted black.
One of Mitchell’s family members said that the photo shocked her.
“I hadn’t seen him in two years, and that was the first time I’d seen him — and the last,” she said.
The photo, which was shared hundreds of times across social media and in multiple news outlets, garnered significant public pushback by those criticizing the “sensationalism” of the post.
According to Facebook records, the sheriff’s office edited the post later that day, cropping the photo to exclude Mitchell’s face.
Court records show that Mitchell was brought before a judge the day of his arrest but was listed as being “unable to sign” paperwork by court officials.
“We knew he was in jail, and we thought that was the safest place for him at the time,” his family member said. “But it turned out to be the worst place for him.”
Officials with the Walker County Sheriff’s Office did not initially respond to questions about Mitchell’s death, but after CBS 42 reported the story of the death in police custody, the sheriff’s office released a statement about the situation. As in most Alabama counties, the local jail is operated by the sheriff’s office.
“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 statement said. “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.”
The statement went on to say that because Mitchell’s death occurred in police custody, the situation is being investigated by state police.
“It is unknown at this time what contributed to his death,” the statement concluded. “Even though the inmate’s death did not occur in the jail, he was still in police custody, so standard protocol was followed and ALEA was contacted. SBI agents began an immediate investigation into the incident.”
In a phone conversation, a representative of the sheriff’s office emphasized that the death did not occur in the Walker County Jail.
In a statement sent after CBS 42’s initial report, officials with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency said they are conducting an “in-custody death investigation” in Walker County. Once the investigation is completed, its findings will be handed over to the Walker County District Attorney’s Office, the agency said.
The Walker County Sheriff’s Office has not responded to a request for comment on the family’s lawsuit as of publication time.
You can read the Mitchell family’s full suit below.
Mitchell family lawsuit by Lee Hedgepeth on Scribd