Jail Officials Find Missing Footage: Continued Questions About Their Conduct In Inmate’s Death


mitchell(8-3-16) The death of Jamycheal Mitchell, a 24 year-old African American diagnosed with schizophrenia, has taken yet another troubling turn. Officials at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail have acknowledged that security footage recorded outside his cell exists after first announcing it had been taped over because it didn’t show any “criminality or negligence” and there was no reason to keep it.

Mitchell’s body was found August 19 in his cell. A state medical examiner ruled that he had suffered a heart attack caused by starvation during the 101 days that he was detained inside the jail waiting for an open bed in a Virginia state hospital. Mitchell had been arrested for allegedly taking $5 worth of snacks from a convenience store without paying. Mitchell was 6 foot, 1 inch tall and weighted 190 pounds when he was arrested. While in jail, his weight dropped to 144 pounds.

Sarah Kleiner and Katherine B. Evans, two reporters at the Richmond Times –Dispatch were the first to learn that a camera in the jail had recorded footage that showed the front of Mitchell’s cell. On April 1, they filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking the jail to make that footage public. The recordings would show if Mitchell was fed, whether his food tray was returned empty, and how many times guards and the jail’s nurse checked on him and entered his cell.

On April 6th, Jail Superintendent David L. Simons wrote this response to the reporters:

“There is no security footage taken outside of Mr. Mitchell’s cell during his incarceration at Hampton Roads Regional Jail.” 

Lt. Col. Eugene Taylor III, the jail’s assistant superintendent, was quoted by the newspaper in a follow-up interview saying that he and one of the jail’s internal investigators were the only people who saw the video before it was taped over.

“If there’s nothing on the video that’s going to show any type of criminality or negligence, we’re not going to maintain it,” Taylor said.

That appeared to be the end of the security camera story, until last week when reporter Kleiner discovered that the jail had found the missing footage.

Now this is where things become troubling. How did Kleiner learn about the footage?

She read about it in a court document that the jail’s lawyers filed on June 24 in reply to a $60 million wrongful death lawsuit that Jamycheal Mitchell family’s filed against the jail alleging negligence. In that court filing, jail officials admitted that the missing footage existed and they wrote that they had told Kleiner about it.

In a letter dated May 9th,  addressed to Kleiner, Jail Superintendent Simons wrote:

“Video taken outside of the cell of Jamycheal Mitchell has been located and preserved, however, any such records are exempt from (FOIA) disclosure in the (jail’s) custodian’s discretion….”

The letter was typed on jail stationary but a note at the top said it had been sent to the Richmond Times Dispatch by email.

Kleiner checked her emails. There was no email from the jail sent to her on May 9th. She checked her mail. There was no letter sent to her dated May 9th.

She immediately asked the jail to send her proof that Simons’ letter had been emailed to her. She asked for a copy of it with a time stamp and date for verification.

On August 1st, Monday, Kleiner received an email from Marissa Dickens, Superintendent Simons’s administrative assistant.

  “Well, apparently, after looking back at my emails, I must have not sent you the revised letter…I do apologize!!!”

To recap:

On April 6, Superintendent Simons said the footage didn’t exist.

In April, Richmond Attorney Mark Krudys said his firm had delivered a request to the jail that it preserve records about Mitchell, including video recordings, adding that the jail was obligated to have kept, at the very least, video from the last four days of Mitchell’s life — a critical period that would have shown what kind of medical care he received in his cell.

On May 10, Krudys filed a $60 million civil suit.

On June 24, attorneys for the jail filed an answer to Krudys’ lawsuit. Included in that filing was an exhibit — a letter, dated May 9, from Simons to reporter Kleiner acknowledging that the jail had footage taken outside Mitchell’s cell.

On August 1, the jail admitted to Kleiner that it never sent the May 9th letter to her as it had told the court.

Why this matters

There are different ways to interpret this series of events and none of them is flattering to the jail.

It is possible that jail officials simply made several innocent mistakes. In that case, these errors might be brushed off as inconsequential except that these are the same jail administrators who announced eight days after Mitchell’s body was found in his cell that they had conducted a thorough internal investigation that cleared them of any and all wrongdoing.

These are the same jail officials who have refused to make that internal investigation public. They simply expect the public to believe their findings, yet their claims — that they taped over security footage and then rediscovered it; that they told Kleiner about the footage and then admitted that they hadn’t told her — raise questions about their managerial competence.

There is a much more cynical and troubling view about what might have occurred.

For whatever reason, jail officials decided to blow off reporter Kleiner’s  April 1st FOIA request. They told her and the public that the footage had been taped over and was inconsequential. That statement didn’t become an issue until Krudys’ filed his civil suit on May 10th.

Public officials can ignore a reporter, but judges don’t look kindly on potential evidence not being disclosed in a civil suit – especially since Krudys had filed a request that all evidence be preserved.

So how do you turn over evidence that you told the public doesn’t exist?

One solution is to file a letter with the court – a letter that you date May 9th  (before Krudys’ suit was filed) – that acknowledges the footage does exist. That proves you weren’t trying to hide anything and didn’t destroy evidence.

There’s only one problem.

If you didn’t really write that letter on May 9th  before the lawsuit was filed and instead wrote it in June when your attorneys warned you that if the footage existed it had to be turned over to the other side – then you couldn’t really send it to reporter Kleiner because May 9th had already passed and emails and letters have time stamps.

The solution. When reporter Kleiner calls, blame an administrative assistant.

As I warned, that’s a cynical view.

Now that Kleiner has been told the footage exists, she has asked through an FOIA that it be made public. There is a precedent. Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid released security video taken in the detention center of Natasha McKenna being repeatedly shot with a taser. A $6 million lawsuit is pending in that case.

Not surprisingly, jail officials have refused despite their claim that it shows no “criminality or negligence.” Kleiner reported:

Del. Marcus B. Simon, D-Fairfax, said Tuesday the jail should release the video, and if it won’t, the state’s top leaders should intervene.

“That is outrageous,” said Simon, who is a member of the House of Delegates’ public safety committee. “There’s a lot of discretion in FOIA … but because something doesn’t have to be released doesn’t mean it shouldn’t and doesn’t mean it can’t.”

The one year anniversary of Mitchell’s death is August 19th. The public still has not been told how a prisoner with mental illness was allowed to literally starve himself until he suffered a heart attack while in custody.

In March, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe commented on Mitchell’s death during a radio show.

“He died of starvation,” McAuliffe said. “Why did you not know for four months he was not eating his food?”

He went on: “Why was he put in prison for $5 in the first place? … Let me give you some weekend community service or whatever it may be,” McAuliffe said. “The idea of $5. Getting a soda pop and a candy bar.”

McAuliffe should join Delegate Simon in demanding the release of the video footage.

Letter from Jail That Was Not Emailed On May 9th 


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.