Mentally ill man freezes to death in Alabama jail

A mentally ill man froze to death in an Alabama jail, according to a lawsuit filed by the man’s family who say he was kept naked in a concrete cell and believe he was also placed in a freezer or other frigid environment.

Anthony Don Mitchell, 33, arrived at a hospital emergency room with a body temperature of 72 degrees (22 degrees Celsius) and was pronounced dead hours later, according to the lawsuit. He was taken to the hospital on January 26 from the Walker County Jail, where he had been incarcerated for two weeks.

An emergency room doctor, who tried unsuccessfully to revive Mitchell, wrote, “I believe hypothermia was the primary cause of death,” according to the lawsuit filed Monday by Mitchell’s mother in federal court.

Mitchell, who had a history of drug addiction, was arrested Jan. 12 after a cousin asked authorities to do a welfare check on him because he was rambling about the portals to heaven and hell in his home and it seemed suffering from a mental breakdown. Jail video shows Mitchell was kept naked in a solitary confinement cell with a concrete floor, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit speculates that Mitchell was also placed in the jail’s kitchen “refrigerator” or similar frigid environment and was left there for hours because his body temperature was so low.

“It is clear that Tony’s death was wrongful, the result of horrific, malicious abuse and mountains of willful indifference,” Jon C. Goldfarb, an attorney representing the family, wrote in the lawsuit. “Numerous corrections officers and medical personnel came to the open door of his cell to observe and entertain himself with his condition.”

The lawsuit also accuses the sheriff’s office of a cover-up. The sheriff’s office issued a statement after the death saying Mitchell “was alert and conscious when she left the premises.” Jail security footage provided to The Associated Press by attorneys for Mitchell’s mother shows officers carrying Mitchell’s limp body into a transport vehicle, then placing it on the ground before placing it in the car.

The lawsuit names Walker County Sheriff Nick Smith and jail officials as defendants.

Attorneys representing the Walker County Sheriff’s Office said they could not comment before the requested investigation is concluded. The sheriff’s office, following routine procedures, contacted the State Bureau of Investigation after Mitchell’s death to request the investigation, according to a statement from Jackson, Fikes & Brakefield.

“The WCSO offers and extends its condolences to the family of Mr. Mitchell and asks for your support and patience for the men and women of the WCSO,” the firm wrote in the statement.

The sheriff’s office posted a photo of Mitchell’s arrest on its Facebook page, adding that Mitchell “brandished a handgun and fired at least one shot at deputies” before running into the woods.

The photo shows that Mitchell’s face is painted black. According to the lawsuit, officers told a family member that Mitchell said he spray-painted his face black to prepare to enter the portal to hell. An officer told family members that they planned to "detox him and then ‘we’ll see how much of his brain is left’, or words like that"according to the demand.

According to the lawsuit, a doctor wrote in the ER notes that Mitchell was “unresponsive, apneic, pulseless, and cold to the touch” when he arrived.

“I’m not sure under what circumstances the patient was incarcerated, but it’s hard to understand a rectal temperature of 72°F 22°C while someone is incarcerated. The cause of his hypothermia is unclear. It is possible that he had an underlying medical condition that resulted in hypothermia. I don’t know if he could have been exposed to a cold environment,” the lawsuit quotes the doctor as saying.

Cameron Mixon, a spokesman for Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, said the office is aware of the matter and that it “is under investigation by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” He said the office will ensure appropriate action is taken after the investigation is complete.

The hypothermia death allegations come as the state prison system also faces a lawsuit over the death of a mentally ill man who "died roasted" in an overheated prison cell. Thomas Lee Rutledge died of hyperthermia on December 7, 2020 at the William E. Donaldson Correctional Center in Bessemer. Rutledge had a core temperature of 109 degrees when he was found unconscious in the mental health cell, according to the lawsuit filed by his sister. He names prison staff, guards and contractors as defendants.

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