WALKER COUNTY, Ala. (WIAT) — She had to share the truth.
That was the reason, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday morning, that a Walker County correctional officer decided to share internal surveillance video of Anthony “Tony” Mitchell with someone outside of her agency. For that, the lawsuit claims, she was terminated from her position.
“She publicized a video of the abuse leading to the death of an inmate named Anthony Mitchell so the horror of his death was not buried with him,” the lawsuit said. “When the Sheriff learned Kelly had exposed the crimes of his department, he retaliated and fired her.”
Anthony Mitchell died in police custody on Jan. 26, authorities later confirmed. Police initially said the mentally ill man had been “alert and conscious” when he left the Walker County Jail for transport to a local hospital, but a video obtained by CBS 42 contradicted that statement. In it, Mitchell is limp, his head and feet dangling as uniformed personnel — “Sheriff” emblazoned on one of their vests — lay his body just outside a marked police SUV. In total, four uniformed officials then work to put him into the police vehicle.
Mitchell’s mother has filed a federal lawsuit against Walker County Sheriff Nick Smith and multiple jailers alleging that their actions — including “likely” placing Mitchell in a walk-in freezer — led to his wrongful death.
On February 10, Karen Kelly, a correctional officer who had recorded portions of internal surveillance video, was served with a letter of termination by her employer.
“You have engaged in certain activities that have been discussed with you which are considered unsatisfactory service for a variety of reasons,” the letter, signed by Sheriff Smith, said in part, according to the suit. “I therefore have elected to discharge you as a probationary employee…”
The 20-page lawsuit, which extensively references CBS 42’s reporting on Mitchell’s death, alleges that Walker County Sheriff’s officials called her into an office as part of an investigation into a leaked video.
Once there, Kelly admitted she had shared the video with two individuals — another employee of Walker County Sheriff’s Office and a second individual “outside of the department who is also in law enforcement.”
Asked why she leaked the video to someone outside of the agency, Kelly responded by saying she was compelled to “share the truth.”
“…Plaintiff explained in her own way how she had to share the truth of what really happened to Mitchell as opposed to the coverup story that had been told by the department’s representative to the media,” the suit said.
At one point in her discussion with sheriff’s officials, Kelly was reportedly asked whether she believed “things might have been different with Mitchell if they had done something else.”
“She told [the officers] that Mitchell might have been alive today if they had acted promptly,” the suit alleges. “Plaintiff said that when somebody is in medical distress, the earlier you get treatment the better the outcome.”
Instead of placing Mitchell in the back of a police vehicle, Kelly argued, an ambulance should have been called to provide medical treatment to the ailing man immediately upon arrival.
After the interview with her superiors, Kelly said she was “sent home until this investigation into the leaked video was complete.”
The next day, Feb. 9, CBS 42 published a second report on Mitchell’s death, this time citing internal surveillance video that contradicted a police statement that the man had been “alert and conscious” prior to his transport to a local hospital. CBS 42 did not obtain footage from Kelly.
On Feb. 10, a deputy hand-delivered Kelly her letter of termination. The letter had been backdated Feb. 9, according to the suit.
Kelly’s federal lawsuit names the Walker County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Nick Smith, Public Information Officer TJ Armstrong and Investigator Carl Carpenter as defendants, alleging that her termination was an act of retaliation. That retaliation was barred by the First Amendment, Kelly argues.
“Plaintiff engaged in constitutionally protected speech when she published the video that was a matter of public concern, including the revelation of the extreme abuse of an inmate in violation of the Substantive Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United State Constitution and the coverup of the Defendants of that abuse of a pretrial detainee,” the suit said.
The lawsuit asks the federal court to order the reinstatement of Kelly into her former position, as well as compensatory and punitive damages.
Walker County Sheriff’s Office had not responded to a request for comment on Kelly’s lawsuit as of publication time.
You can read Kelly’s full suit below.
Karen Kelly Complaint Feb 14, 2023 by Lee Hedgepeth on Scribd