Alabama man jailed in 'the freezer' died of homicide due to hypothermia, records show


An Alabama inmate with “serious mental and psychiatric needs” was placed in a concrete drunk tank known as “the freezer” before he later died from hypothermia in a death now ruled a homicide, state records show.

Anthony Don Mitchell died Jan. 26, 2023, while in the custody of the Walker County Sheriff’s Department after “spending fourteen days incarcerated under horrendous conditions” at the Walker County Jail, according to an amended complaint filed in a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.

The jail is in the city of Jasper about 40 miles northwest of Birmingham.

According to the 53-page suit filed by his mother, Margaret Mitchell, corrections officers at the jail purposely exposed her 33-year-old son to freezing temperatures in the tank over a 24-period.

The suit, filed last February, also” claims they denied Mitchell medication, medical treatment and access to water or a toilet.

Mitchell’s death certificate, obtained by USA TODAY, shows he died as a result of hypothermia as well as “sepsis resulting from infections injuries obtained during incarceration and medical neglect.”

Anthony Don MitchellAnthony Don Mitchell

Anthony Don Mitchell

On Monday, Walker County Coroner Joey Vick told USA TODAY Mitchell’s death has been ruled a homicide.

“Tony’s death was wrongful, the result of horrific, malicious abuse and mountains of deliberate indifference, “Jon Goldfarb, an attorney representing Mitchell’s family, wrote in the suit.

As of Monday, no criminal charges had been filed against any off the defendants, Goldfarb told USA TODAY.

Sheriff, officers and nurses named defendants

The suit names defendants including Walker County Sheriff Nick Smith, jail Administrator Justin White, more than a dozen jail correction officers, a nurse practitioner, a nurse and an investigator.

Randy McNeill, an attorney representing the sheriff and the corrections officers told USA TODAY he could not comment on the case “because of the ongoing investigation.”

Attorneys for the remaining defendants could not immediately be reached, but according to a motion filed in response to the compliant, the sheriff’s office and its affiliated parties deny the allegations.

“The defendants do not think they did anything wrong,” Goldfarb told USA TODAY Monday via email.

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‘Portals to heaven and portals to hell’

According to the lawsuit, Mitchell lived “in complete isolation’ and suffered from “serious medical and psychiatric needs including but not limited to severe drug addiction, psychosis, and malnourishment.”

At the time of his death, Mitchell was being held at the jail after being arrested during a welfare check, when shots were fired at deputies as they were called to Mitchell’s home for what family members believed to be “a mental break down.”

On the day he was taken to jail, a cousin called 911 for help, the suit continues, because Mitchell was in serious need of psychiatric help, “spouting delusions about portals to heaven and portals to hell.”

When deputies arrived at the home, the suit reads, Mitchell brandished a handgun, fired one shot towards officers then fled into nearby woods.

A black spray painted face

When deputies found Mitchell in the woods, his face was covered with a black substance, the suit continues.

When he arrived at the jail, Mitchell’s cousin noticed his face and asked corrections Officer Arthur Armstrong, one of the defendants named in the suit, what happened.

Armstrong, the suit says, told the cousin Mitchell spray painted his own face black “because he was planning to enter a portal to hell located inside his house.”

Anthony Don MitchellAnthony Don Mitchell

Anthony Don Mitchell

Armstrong told Mitchell’s cousin they would set Mitchell’s bail “high enough that he would not be able to bond out,” and assured him Mitchell would receive medical evaluation and treatment in jail, the lawsuit reads.

“Armstrong told him, ‘We’re going to detox him and then we’ll see how much of his brain is left,’ or words to that effect,” the lawsuit reads.

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‘The freezer’

For the duration of his stay at the jail, Mitchell was kept in cell BK5, the “drunk tank,” according to the suit, either mostly or completely naked on a bare concrete floor.

According to the amended complaint, during the night of Jan. 25 to Jan. 26, “corrections officers intentionally caused extremely cold air to blow through the roof vents” in to his cell using the jail’s climate control system.

The outside temperature that night was in the low 30s, the suit claims, so if “it was simply outside air blowing into the cells, that air was frigid,” the attorney wrote.

“BK5, referred to by some longtime corrections staff and inmates as “the freezer” because of the ability of corrections staff to subject inmates to frigid temperatures there, would have been the coldest cell in the booking area, the suite reads. “Inmates housed there report being able to see their breath because it was so cold and that their digits would turn numb.”

At various points during a check, two corrections officers are captured on video “clowning and laughing as Tony lies motionless and naked on the bare cement floor in the open cell behind them, obviously in severe medical distress and in need of immediate emergency medical treatment.”

Deputies, the complaint continues, “did not call an ambulance for him despite his obvious need for emergency medical treatment.”

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72 degrees Fahrenheit

When Mitchell was taken to a hospital in the backseat of a sheriff’s vehicle, his internal body temperature “was at most 72 degrees Fahrenheit when he arrived, according to the suit.

The emergency room doctor who treated Mitchell, and spent more than three hours trying to resuscitate him, wrote the following note in Mitchell’s medical records:

“I am not sure what circumstances the patient was held in incarceration, but it is difficult to understand a rectal temperature of 72°F… while someone is incarcerated in jail. The cause of his hypothermia is not clear…I do believe that hypothermia was the ultimate cause of his death.”

Natalie Neysa Alund is a senior reporter for USA TODAY. Reach her at nalund@usatoday.com and follow her on X @nataliealund.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Anthony Mitchel died of hypothermia in Alabama jail; ruled homicide



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