Jail nurses cooperating with FBI in case of inmate who froze to death
Anthony Mitchell died of hypothermia after spending two weeks in a jail during a mental health break
By Sarah Whites-Koditschek
WALKER COUNTY, Ala. — The nurses for the jail in Walker County are cooperating with the FBI in its investigation into the case of an inmate who froze to death earlier this year, according to court filings.
“They were two of the best nurses the company has,” said attorney LaBella McCallum.
She is representing nurses Brad Allred and Aleisha Herron in the federal lawsuit brought by Margaret Mitchell, the mother and administrator of the estate of Anthony Mitchell, 33, who died after two weeks in the North Alabama jail. McCallum said the nurses requested an ambulance for Mitchell, but jailers needed to make the call.
“The nurses followed the procedure to ask the jailers to call an ambulance,” said McCallum. “I don’t want to throw the jailers under the bus, (but) you can’t call for an ambulance yourself as a nurse.”
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Alabama’s northern district on February 13, against Sheriff Nick Smith and 13 staff at the county jail, including corrections officers, nurses and an investigator, alleges Mitchell was left in a frigid, isolated environment without water or access to food, that his false teeth were confiscated and that he was denied medical care, resulting in his death by hypothermia in the Walker Baptist Medical Center on January 27.
“Mitchell, already stressed by dehydration from receiving no water for over two days, (became) severely hypothermic overnight and into the morning hours,” the lawsuit complaint stated.
Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the FBI announced an investigation into Mitchell’s death. The lawsuit initially suggested that one way Mitchell could have frozen to death was by being placed in a walk-in freezer, but that theory has been dropped and the family now claims he was likely kept in a frigid cell, left to lie on a bare floor, until he became unresponsive.
The complaint alleges that as Mitchell was dying on the morning of the 27th as jail staff delayed calling for an ambulance for several critical hours.
In a hearing in the federal lawsuit Monday, McCallum asked U.S. District Judge Annemarie Carney Axon to order a partial stay on the civil case. She asked to postpone discovery and deposition of her clients out of concern that there could be a possible criminal case, if there is an indictment following the FBI investigation.
“It’s just messy,” McCallum told the court. “Really what I think we’re asking for is a balance between the plaintiff’s interest and the public’s interest in having the (case) go forward.”
According to McCallum, the nurses do not want to risk the possibility of having their credibility questioned in a criminal case based on statements they make in a civil case. But, she said, they have nothing to hide.
She said they told the jailers to call 911 as soon as they observed Mitchell in distress and they followed up on that request, according to McCallum, who said the nurses followed jail procedure for calling an ambulance, which requires the jailers to prepare the inmate for transport and to make the call.
Mitchell was arrested on January 12 after his family called the sheriff’s department concerned that he was having a psychotic break and that his drug use had escalated in the months following the death of his father. Mitchell had a history of methamphetamine use.
Attorney for Mitchell’s estate, Will Smith, told the judge he was concerned about a stay in the lawsuit resulting in a delay in the trial and that some evidence, like phone records, might be lost if the discovery process is delayed.
“We are of course eager to get the case moving,” said Smith. “We’re sensitive to the fact that a criminal investigation doesn’t have an end point.”
Judge Carney Axon questioned McCallum about her reasoning for asking for the partial stay and expressed hesitation about slowing proceedings.
“I am very concerned about the open-endedness of the delay with respect to the criminal investigation” said judge Carney Axon. “If I had a dollar for every time I was told a criminal investigation would be brief.”