Judge rules to unseal videos in 2018 Tennessee slaughterhouse raid

U.S. Magistrate Chris Steger: The public has a “strong interest” in seeing actions by federal agents

By: - August 17, 2022 10:01 am
Southeastern Provision slaughterhouse in Grainger County. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Southeastern Provision slaughterhouse in Grainger County. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

A federal magistrate judge says the public has a right to see a video that purportedly shows an agent of the U.S. government engaged in excessive force in a raid at a Grainger County slaughterhouse.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Christopher Steger has shot down a bid by attorneys for a slew of federal agents to keep under wraps video of the actions of U.S. Department of Homeland Security Agent John Witsell in an April 2018 raid at the Southeastern Provision slaughterhouse in Bean Station, Tenn.

In his ruling, Steger says the public has a “strong interest” in the issues of policing the video presents. A Tennessee Lookout investigation has found the video footage — captured by a slaughterhouse camera — shows Witsell placing his booted foot on the neck of a Latino worker who was facedown with his hands behind his back and keeping it there for 25 seconds. A fellow agent has testified in a deposition Witsell’s actions constituted excessive force, the Lookout’s probe revealed.

“Members of the public should be allowed to view the video and reach their own conclusions as to what it depicts,” Steger wrote in his order. “The arrest video … is information in which the public has a strong interest and which should be available to the public.

U.S. Magistrate Christopher Steger (Photo: LinkedIn)
U.S. Magistrate Christopher Steger (Photo: LinkedIn)

“The Court notes that the information sought to be sealed relates to police conduct during a raid at a slaughterhouse in Tennessee,” Steger wrote. “The public has a strong interest in understanding how law enforcement performs its critically important duties … This power is not limitless — transparency is necessary to prevent abuses. Such transparency can reassure the public that police are conducting themselves within constitutional boundaries, thereby increasing trust and confidence. Alternatively, it can provide accountability and an impetus for correction should police overstep constitutional boundaries.”

The Tennessee Lookout last week filed a motion seeking the unsealing of the video. In that motion, Paul McAdoo with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued the agents had failed to come up with a reason for sealing the video strong enough to outweigh the public’s right to see it.

“(The agents) have done no more than offer platitudes and unsupported speculation to claim that their right to a trial by an impartial jury in this civil class action suit might be harmed if (the video) were available to the public,” McAdoo wrote.

Steger has ordered that the video be unsealed by Aug. 19. The Tennessee Lookout will be obtaining a copy for public release. 

“We’re pleased Judge Steger has ruled affirmatively on the unsealing of this video,” said Holly McCall, Editor-in-Chief of the Lookout. “Members of the public have not only a right, but need to observe the actions of federal agents in cases where questions of abuse have been raised.

‘Speculative and conclusory’

Witsell’s attorney had argued public release of the video would prompt riots, “civil unrest” and violence against federal agents because of the similarity between Witsell’s boot-on-the-neck tactic and Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin’s kneeling on the neck of George Floyd in May 2020. Floyd died as a result, and the public release of bystander footage of Floyd’s arrest spurred nationwide police reform rallies and helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement.

In his ruling unsealing the video, Steger rejected the government’s assertion.

“(Agents’) assertion that allowing the public to see the arrest video and the written descriptions of it will incite civil unrest, taint the jury pool, and subject the agents/officers to condemnation and potential physical harm is speculative and conclusory,” Steger wrote. “This action was filed in February 2019 and the complaint contains detailed, graphic descriptions of alleged wrongdoing by law enforcement agents. Those assertions are purely conclusory.”

Steger noted agents “have provided no evidence to support their concerns of civil unrest or a presumption that a jury will be biased against (agents) if the arrest video is placed in the public record.”

The magistrate judge has already taken steps to protect agents in the case by sealing personal identifying information about them, including personal addresses. It is not his job, Steger opined, to protect agents’ reputations.

(Agents') assertion that allowing the public to see the arrest video and the written descriptions of it will incite civil unrest, taint the jury pool, and subject the agents/officers to condemnation and potential physical harm is speculative and conclusory.

– U.S. Magistrate Christopher Steger

“While the arrest video and descriptions of it may portray some members of law enforcement unfavorably, potential damage to reputation is not a sufficient basis to place information under seal,” Steger wrote in his order. “While the court is mindful that allegations of wrongdoing on the part of law enforcement can place such agents in jeopardy of retaliation, the court is unaware of any specific threats against (the agents in the raid).”

Class-action status awarded

Agents with Homeland Security, the IRS and U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement stormed inside the Grainger County slaughterhouse and immediately began targeting Latino workers for arrest — even though agents promised now-retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Guyton they only wanted to look for records of wrongdoing by slaughterhouse owner James Brantley, a Tennessee Lookout review of court records shows.

More than 100 Latino workers were handcuffed, loaded onto buses, transported to a National Guard armory in a neighboring county, without warrants, deportation orders or any proof of wrongdoing, and held there for hours without any notice to the workers’ families, court records show.

Nonprofit legal organizations, including the Southern Poverty Law Center and National Immigration Law Center, filed suit in February 2019 against the agents and the federal government on behalf of a handful of the 104 workers seized in the raid.

U.S. District Judge Travis McDonough last week agreed to certify the litigation as a class-action lawsuit, a move that will allow one jury to decide if agents in the raid plotted to violate all the Latino workers’ civil rights. The Justice Department had urged the judge to require each worker, even those deported as a result of the raid, to file suit.

The litigation has revealed evidence from the government’s own records and agent testimony that some Latino workers were brutalized during the raid and others were mocked and ridiculed. Witsell, court records show, punched a worker in the face in an unprovoked attack before he applied pressure to the neck of an unresisting worker. The lawsuit also details an incident in which an agent forced a Latino worker to urinate in public, while the agent held him at gunpoint.

The government is no longer defending Witsell, although the Justice Department is refusing to investigate his behavior during the raid. A private attorney now representing Witsell says the agent is now too sick from a condition kept under wraps in the court record to answer questions or submit to a deposition. Steger has recommended McDonough, who will preside over trial in the case, bar Witsell from testifying in his own defense or bolstering testimony of fellow agents.

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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.