Records show U.S. Department of Justice nixed civil rights investigation in Grainger County case

By: - August 8, 2022 7:00 am
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

The Department of Justice nixed a civil rights investigation of a federal agent purportedly captured on video placing his boot on the neck of a Latino worker at a Grainger County slaughterhouse — within days of receiving a referral on the incident and one week before the agent was interviewed about it, newly revealed records show.

The Justice Department’s refusal to probe the actions of U.S. Department of Homeland Security Agent John Witsell in an April 2018 raid on the Southeastern Provision slaughterhouse was revealed in a motion filed July 29 in U.S. District Court.

The motion shows the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division was notified of the alleged excessive force by Witsell on March 28. Within days, the division stated in a letter that it would not conduct a formal inquiry, according to court records.

The motion also reveals that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Professional Responsibility, which is tasked with investigating and policing agents under the agency’s authority, declined in late June to take any disciplinary action against Witsell in connection with the same videotaped incident.

Newly released records show two federal departments declined to conduct a civil rights investigation into a U.S. Department of Homeland Security agent allegedly caught on video placing his booted foot on the neck of a immigrant during a Grainger County slaughterhouse raid.

But all records related to the decisions by the DOJ and ICE-OPR, as well as the video at issue, are — so far — being kept hidden from the public. Witsell is asking U.S. Magistrate Judge Christopher Steger to permanently seal those records and the video, but Steger has not yet issued a ruling.

Witsell has emerged as a key figure in a civil-rights conspiracy lawsuit filed on behalf of Latino workers at the slaughterhouse who allege they were targeted by federal agents solely because of their race or ethnicity, handcuffed and detained without any proof of wrongdoing, mocked and, in some instances, brutalized.

Not only is he accused of placing his boot on the neck of a Latino worker who was facedown on the ground with his hands behind his back, but fellow federal agents have confirmed Witsell punched another Latino worker in the face without apparent provocation.

Citing an undisclosed medical condition, Witsell is refusing to fully answer written questions related to his actions on the day of the raid or submit to a deposition. The Justice Department, which is representing all other federal agents named in the lawsuit, is refusing to defend Witsell in the case. He is now represented by a private attorney.

U.S. Attorney Christopher Kavanaugh (U.S. Department of Justice)
U.S. Attorney Christopher Kavanaugh. (U.S. Department of Justice)

Judge sets hearing on sealed reports

Federal agents obtained a search warrant days before the raid in which they claimed they only sought to obtain records showing plant owner James Brantley was paying all employees — white and Latino — cash to avoid payroll taxes.

But court records have since revealed agents had been planning for months to seize Latino workers inside the slaughterhouse as part of then-President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to get tough on illegal immigration but never told the federal magistrate judge who issued the search warrant.

The lawsuit alleges that in preparation for the raid the agents rounded up state and local officers to seal off the plant via roadblocks, secured buses to serve as transport vehicles, brought dozens of zip-ties to use as handcuffs and gained permission to utilize a National Guard Armory in a nearby county as a makeshift detention center.

Dozens of heavily-armed agents with DHS, ICE and the IRS intentionally dressed in black clothing sans any identifying insignia, stormed inside the plant and immediately began targeting Latino workers for arrest while largely ignoring white workers and plant management, records filed in the lawsuit show.

More than 100 Latino workers were seized, bused to the armory and held for hours without any proof of wrongdoing, according to the litigation, while plant owner Brantley remained free.

A handful of the seized workers later filed suit. Attorneys for those workers obtained footage from plant security cameras that, according to court records, shows Witsell pressing his boot into the neck of a worker who was already facedown on the floor with his hands behind his back and keeping it there for 24 seconds.

Virginia U.S. Attorney Christopher Kavanaugh, whose office has been tapped by the Justice Department to defend the federal government in the workers’ lawsuit, revealed in the motion filed Friday that he reviewed that footage earlier this year and notified higher-ups in the DOJ, DHS and ICE of a possible “use of excessive force” by Witsell as a result.

“This alleged use of excessive force was reported … on March 28 for appropriate referrals,” the motion stated. “(DHS) referred the matter to ICE-OPR for independent investigation into the allegation. The incident was also referred to the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division for review.”

Kavanaugh said in the motion he was later notified that neither agency intended to take any action against Witsell and turned over reports from both agencies to the workers’ attorneys.

“According to the OPR, DOJ Civil Rights (Division) declined to pursue the matter on April 6, which was before Agent Witsell’s interview with DHS-OPR on April 13,” the motion stated. “On June 30, DHS-OPR finalized its report and declined to refer the matter for agency action against Agent Witsell.”

Kavanaugh said he played no role in either agency’s decision making.

“Undersigned counsel for the United States in this civil litigation was appropriately not involved in either the independent OPR investigation or DOJ’s decision on whether to pursue a criminal investigation,” Kavanaugh’s motion stated.

It’s not known when Steger will rule on a request by Witsell and his fellow agents to keep the video footage under seal. The workers’ attorneys are urging Steger to make it public. The magistrate judge has scheduled a video hearing Thursday on Witsell’s request to keep the OPR report under wraps.

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Jamie Satterfield
Jamie Satterfield

Jamie Satterfield is an investigative journalist with more than 33 years of experience, specializing in legal affairs, policing, public corruption, environmental crime and civil rights violations. Her journalism has been honored as some of the best in the nation, earning recognition from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Awards, the Green Eyeshade Awards, the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Managing Editors Association, the First Amendment Center and many other industry organizations. Her work has led to criminal charges against wrongdoers, changes in state law and citations in legal opinions and journals. She was married to the love of her life for 28 years and is now a widow and proud mother of two successful children of good character and work ethic.