Mental health injustice
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Anthony “Tony” Mitchell grew up in Cordova, in Walker County, near Jasper. He led a relatively normal Alabama life. Austin Allen, a friend of Mitchell, recalled when they “used to play basketball in a barn together every day after high school.” Anitra Pearson, who also went to high school with Mitchell, recalled that at her wedding to Colton Pearson, Tony walked their dog “Piglet” down the aisle for her.
Following his father’s death two years ago, Mitchell began to suffer from mental and physical health problems, where he turned to the usage of illicit drugs. 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.
Steve said that “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 assistance for his cousin, 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.” In response, a Walker County Sheriff’s official told the relative that Mitchell would receive help while inside the jail.
The Walker County Sheriff’s Office claims that when they arrived on scene on January 12, 2023, that Tony Mitchell brandished a handgun and fired at least one shot at deputies before he retreated into a wooded area behind his home. After a search that included both air and K-9 units, Mitchell was arrested and charged with “attempted murder.”
Deputies further stated that they recovered meth, heroin and a handgun. A photo of Tony Mitchell taken during his arrest shocked his friends and family with his deteriorated condition.
At the time of Mitchell’s arrest, it was noted that he was suffering “from serious medical and psychiatric needs, including but not limited to severe drug addiction, psychosis and malnourishment.” T.J. Armstrong, the public information officer for the Walker County Sheriff’s Office, told Mitchell’s cousin that “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.” Adding that “we’re going to detox him and then we’ll see how much of his brain is left.”
Mitchell was kept in custody at the Walker County Jail for only two weeks. Court documents said for the duration of Mitchell’s stay at the Walker County Jail, he was kept in an isolation cell in the booking area. Correctional Officer Karen Kelly, the then acting supervisor of the jail, said that Mitchell was being held in cell number five, also known as the “drunk tank,” because he was on “suicide watch” and was kept naked in the cell most of the time.
According to the complaint filed by Mitchell’s family, the cell is not intended to house inmates but meant to hold detainees temporarily during the booking process.
“The cell lacked a bed or other furnishings. 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.” Kelly stated that she last saw Mitchell on January 25 at 6 a.m. as she clocked out to go home. He was “sitting on the ground inside of his cell” and asked through the cell door for more water.
In the official statement from the Walker County Sheriff’s Office, “on Thursday, January 26, 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.”
However, when Mitchell’s body arrived at Walker Baptist Hospital, he had no pulse, and his internal body temperature was 72 degrees Fahrenheit. The emergency room doctor noted in Mitchell’s medical records that it was “hard to understand why his body was so cold,” leading to speculation that the cause of death was hypothermia, pending results from the official autopsy.
Because she was not working at the time Mitchell suffered his medical emergency, Kelly expressed her concerns about Mitchell to a lieutenant who told her to “search the video to see what happened to him.” Kelly discovered video recorded at around 8:54 a.m. on January 26 taken in the “sally port,” which is where inmates are brought in for booking.
“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.”
Kelly recorded the video on her phone and sent it to the lieutenant. Kelly, who is medically trained, feels that sheriff’s officials should have acted sooner by calling for an ambulance for Mitchell, adding that he was “unconscious and nearly dead when he left the jail.”
Further review of tapes shows that on or around January 15, Mitchell, while naked, was dragged out of holding cell number five and tased by a correction officer. Kelly told the lieutenant what she saw “weighed heavy on her heart” and that if that was somebody in her family, she would want to know the truth of what happened to him. Kelly forwarded her copies of video evidence to representatives for Mitchell’s family, and upon discovery of her release of damning evidence by the Walker County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Nick Smith fired Officer Karen Kelly on the spot.
Mitchell’s mother, Margaret Mitchell, is the plaintiff and administrator of his estate in a wrongful death case against Sheriff Nick Smith and T.J. Armstrong, along with several correctional officers, two medical personnel at the Walker County Jail and an investigator in the case. The complaint, filed on February 13, alleges that “Tony’s death of hypothermia was the direct and proximate result of these defendants’ deliberate indifference or malice and of their ongoing denial of Tony’s constitutional rights under a scheme that continued to operate after his death through the issuance of false statements to family members and the media.”
Jon Goldfarb, a lawyer for Mitchell’s family, said, “This is the worst case of inmate abuse I have ever seen. The evidence of abuse would have been buried with Tony Mitchell but for the bravery of a lone corrections officer who made videos of what really happened to Tony and shared them. And they fired her for exposing the truth of this abuse.”
Goldfarb added 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.”
This case has made national headlines, and rightfully so. Despite his mental breakdown and addictions, Anthony Mitchell did nothing that warranted two weeks of torture, being stripped naked and put in a cold cell, as his mental and medical needs were neglected, leading to his eventual death.
Walker County police then made multiple false statements about the incident. Police first falsely claimed in a press release that “the inmate was alert and conscious when he left the facility and arrived at the hospital.” Later, an officer told Mitchell’s cousin that “when deputies got Tony to the hospital, the doctor had asked Tony to sit up, and Tony had sat up, and that at this point, he had a massive heart attack.”
However, the doctor’s notes indicate that Mitchell arrived unresponsive and that “there was never any purposeful movement or response to pain.”
Thanks to qualified immunity, it is very unlikely that a single individual deputy or official will be held liable for their conduct. It is long past time to end the “thin blue line” of police lawlessness, and that starts with ending “qualified immunity.”
Rest in peace, Tony. Hopefully the backlash from this will cause the various state and local entities to re-examine their protocols and add requirements for proper treatment of those who are in mental duress.