Alabama Man Allegedly Held in Jail Freezer Dies of Hypothermia


Anthony “Tony” Mitchell, 33, died of hypothermia on January 26, two weeks after he was taken to the Walker County Jail in Alabama. A lawsuit filed last week by his family calls this “one of the most appalling cases of jail abuse the country has seen.”

On January 12, Mr. Mitchell’s cousin called 911 and asked for help for his cousin, who he said appeared to be having a mental breakdown and looked malnourished, according to the lawsuit. He told the dispatcher an ambulance would be a good idea.

But sheriff’s deputies arrived first, and reports say Mr. Mitchell, still in a delusional state, brandished and fired a handgun before running into the woods behind his house.

He was arrested and taken to the Walker County Jail, where the complaint alleges he was held for the next 14 days in an isolation cell intended for temporary holding during booking, not for housing detainees.

The suit says the cell lacked a bed or other furnishings. Mr. Mitchell was left to lie naked on a bare cement floor with a drain that could be used as a toilet.

Based on surveillance footage provided to Mr. Mitchell’s family by a correctional officer who was fired when the sheriff learned she had shared the footage, the complaint alleges that Mr. Mitchell was dragged out of the cell on January 15 and tased. He lost the dentures that he needed to chew his food and they were not returned to him.

The suit alleges that Mr. Mitchell “likely…was placed in a restraint chair in the jail kitchen’s walk-in freezer or similar frigid environment and left there for hours.”

About an hour after the jail kitchen opened at 3 am on January 26, the complaint says that surveillance footage shows Mr. Mitchell lying naked and motionless among piles of trash on the floor of the holding cell.

While officers are seen “clowning and laughing” outside the door, the suit alleges, a nurse spends a couple of minutes with Mr. Mitchell but appears to provide no medical treatment. An officer turns out the light and closes the door.

At around 6 am, video shows officers entering the cell with a sleeping mat and sweeping around Mr. Mitchell to remove trash from the cell as multiple people come by to look into the cell, according to the complaint.

No one called an ambulance or provided emergency treatment, according to the suit. Instead, the complaint says, “[w]hile Tony languished naked and dying ofhypothermia in the early morning hours of January 26 and his chances for survival trickled away, numerous corrections officers and medical staff wandered over to his open cell door to spectate and be entertained by his condition.”

At about 8:30 am, the suit says that video shows Mr. Mitchell being taken out of the cell in a wheelchair. After he falls out of the chair, officers put him back and shackle his feet while he makes what the complaint calls “slow, seemingly spasmodic movements.”

Officers are then seen dragging Mr. Mitchell back inside the cell while a female detainee is processed in the booking area. Some time later, the suit alleges, officers carried Mr. Mitchell out to a waiting SUV.

The Walker County Sheriff’s Office told CBS 42 that Mr. Mitchell was “alert and conscious” when he left the jail, but surveillance video obtained by CBS 42 shows that Mr. Mitchell’s body is limp and he appears to be unconscious as officers carry him outside, put him down on the cement while they open the car door, and then place him in the back seat of the vehicle.

When Mr. Mitchell arrived at Walker Baptist Hospital at 9:23 am, his internal body temperature was 72 degrees Fahrenheit, he had no pulse, and was taking only two to four breaths per minute, according to the suit. Doctors tried for three hours to resuscitate him before he was declared dead at 1:15 pm.

The emergency room doctor wrote that the cause of death was hypothermia, but noted that the cause of his hypothermia was unclear.  “[I]t is difficult to understand a rectal temperature of 72 F 22 centigrade while someone is incarcerated in jail,” the doctor wrote.

The family is suing Walker County Sheriff Nick Smith, as well as corrections officers and medical care providers employed by the private medical contractor in the jail.

The complaint alleges the sheriff has a policy or practice of deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs of people incarcerated at the jail, as well as excessive and unreasonable force.

It cites the 2018 death of a woman who died of untreated pneumonia after 22 days at the jail and a case in which an officer punched a handcuffed man after spraying him with chemical irritant and beating him with a baton. Another man charged that the jail denied him treatment for cancer and that officers at the jail physically and sexually assaulted him by punching, grabbing, and kicking him in his genitals and buttocks.

Former corrections officer Karen Kelly has filed her own lawsuit against the sheriff and other personnel alleging that she was fired in retaliation after she shared video footage that contradicted the sheriff’s statements about Mr. Mitchell’s condition.

Outraged community members have protested outside the sheriff’s office and are calling on Sheriff Nick Smith to resign.

The attorney general confirmed last week that the FBI is involved in the investigation into Mr. Mitchell’s death.