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Judge denies request by Walker County sheriff, others to delay proceedings over death of Tony Mitchell
The civil suit was filed by the mother of Tony Mitchell, a Walker County man who froze to death in police custody earlier this year
Justice marches on.
On Thursday, a federal judge denied a motion by defendants in a suit over the death of Anthony Mitchell that would have halted some aspects of the civil case pending the outcome of criminal investigations.
The ruling, issued Thursday morning and first reported by Tread, will allow all aspects of the civil case against nearly 20 individual defendants, including Walker County Sheriff Nick Smith, to move forward.
The civil lawsuit, filed by Margaret Mitchell, stems from the death of her son in the custody of the Walker County Sheriff’s Office in January.
“After a hearing and briefing on the motion, the court DENIES the motion without prejudice to refiling if circumstances change,” Thursday’s order said.
The defendants in the case had asked Judge Annemarie Carney Axon to stay some elements of the case — in particular depositions and some aspects of written discovery — out of concern that any statements or evidence released may be used against them in criminal proceedings.
Judge Axon had said in a hearing on the matter in late May that she was “very concerned” about granting any indefinite delay in the civil case over the death of Anthony Mitchell in police custody earlier this year.
“I am very concerned about the open-endedness of the delay with respect to the criminal prosecutions or investigations,” Judge Axon said in that hearing. “If I had a dollar for every time I was told a criminal investigation would be very brief…”
Thursday’s ruling cemented the judge’s views on any delay, though the judge wrote that if circumstances change, the defendants in the case can again request a delay for the court to consider:
“The individual defendants’ first request is to stay their depositions. But as the parties stated at the hearing, no depositions have yet been scheduled and none appear to be imminent. The parties have not yet answered paper discovery. Discovery is not due to be completed until February 29, 2024, eight and a half months from now. And at the hearing, plaintiff’s counsel stated, without disagreement from defense counsel, that depositions would not take place until several months from now at the earliest. Accordingly, at this point it would be premature to rule on whether requiring the individual defendants to sit for depositions would compel an adverse judgment against them
The individual defendants’ second request is to stay their obligation to respond to written discovery in a way that might waive their Fifth Amendment privilege. But at the hearing, the individual defendants could not provide any examples of written discovery to which they might need to weigh whether to invoke the Fifth Amendment or risk waiving it. Without more information, any ruling from the court on this request would be advisory.
Accordingly, the court DENIES the motion to partially stay discovery in this case without prejudice to refiling if circumstances change. The court LIFTS the stay previously imposed.” — Order by Judge Axon, June 22
Anthony “Tony” Mitchell died on Jan. 27 after being incarcerated in the county jail for about two weeks. The 33-year-old had initially been arrested after his family — concerned about his mental health and safety — called local police for a welfare check. Police claimed that when they arrived, Mitchell fired a weapon at them. He was subsequently arrested and charged with attempted murder.
Two weeks later, Mitchell was dead, having suffered from hypothermia during his detention, according to doctors’ notes from his medical file. His family later filed suit against various Walker County Jail officials and workers, including the county’s sheriff, Nick Smith.
The Walker County Sheriff’s Office, which only notified the public about Mitchell’s death after reporter inquiries, has vigorously denied the allegations outlined in the lawsuit in court filings.
The office had initially said Mitchell was “alert and conscious” when he left the Walker County Jail for transport to a local hospital, a claim later refuted by leaked surveillance video from inside the facility that showed Mitchell’s limp body being placed by officers into a police vehicle.
Criminal investigations into the circumstances surrounding Mitchell’s death are being conducted by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
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