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Judge orders Cobb County Sheriff to turn over files on jail deaths

11Alive filed a lawsuit against the department for concealing files and violating the Georgia Open Records Act.

COBB COUNTY, Ga. — A judge has ordered the Cobb County Sheriff's Office to release records related to two people who have died at its detention center over the past few years.

The order is in response to a lawsuit 11Alive filed against Sheriff Neil Warren in September. The lawsuit claimed the sheriff violated the Georgia Open Records Act by withholding public documents related to inmate deaths by manufacturing a bogus investigation to conceal the records.

Two of those inmate deaths include Reginald Wilson and Bradley Emory. Both of their case files were closed last year.

In August, 11Alive's investigative team, The Reveal, sent a public records request to the sheriff’s office asking for copies of the complete criminal and internal affairs files related to both deaths. The files were previously provided to the public, more specifically, to attorneys representing families of the deceased. 

RELATED: 'He didn’t have to die like that' | Leaders call to reopen investigation into Cobb County Jail death

According to Cobb County attorney Lauren Bruce, the records were not available because the deaths were still under investigation. 

"On June 11, 2020, Sheriff Warren requested that an independent law firm investigate the circumstances surrounding the inmate deaths,” Bruce wrote to 11Alive. 

That law firm is run by attorney Nathan Wade. Bruce said state law allowed the agency to withhold records until the conclusion of his investigation.

But, during a hearing on Monday, Wade said he’s not doing a criminal investigation at all. He called it a review and assessment.

The lawsuit states that Wade’s investigation is illusionary and “an effort to shield thousands of public (and potentially damaging) records from disclosure in an election year.”

Sheriff Warren is running for re-election in November.

Notes are all in his mind

During the hearing, Wade said he has spent the past five months reviewing hundreds of pages of investigative documents related to 12 inmate deaths. That included interviewing some deputies. 

According to testimony during Monday’s hearing, Wade did not have a single document, record, or note to share outlining his progress. 

When asked if had any work product, Wade said it was all in his brain. “Well, I have obviously my brainchild, what’s going on in my mind about it. That’s what I have,” Wade stated.

RELATED: Cobb DA responds to calls for investigation into inmate's death in jail

Credit: WXIA

When he did write down his findings, Wade said he would take notes during interviews, but then he would throw it in the trash as he exited the meeting room.

"Got done with it, destroyed it, and walked out,” Wade said. “Yes, there in the sheriff’s department.” 

Assessment vs. Investigation

Wade also disagreed with the sheriff’s characterization of the scope of his assessment. 

According to a sworn affidavit signed by Chief Deputy Sonya Allen, she explained that Wade’s review could “theoretically alleviate the public’s concern, uncover areas for improvement and/or the need for employee disciplinary action.” She claimed Wade would also review and assess allegations of mistreatment over the past five years, including a review of inmate deaths.

During Wade’s testimony, he understood his missions differently and broader in scope.

“My understanding is that we’re going to review neglect and death cases at the jail. We’re going to review use of force cases and we’re going to review anything dealing with racial discrimination," Wade testified. 

The sheriff claims Wade’s review, previously identified as an investigation, started on June 11, but the department continued to provide records related to an inmate death that should have fallen within the timeline of the assessment. The original timeline provided by the county attorney was from December 2018 to the present. It later changed to the past five years. 

Kevil Wingo's Death 

From early June to the end of July, the sheriff provided numerous records related to former inmate Kevil Wingo, a 36-year-old man who died in custody at the detention center in September 2019. 

According to The Reveal's investigation, Wingo repeatedly complained of a stomach ulcer and begged to be sent to the hospital. Jail video showed him collapsing in his cell numerous times. Jail staff admit they heard him complain he couldn’t breathe.

RELATED: After 11Alive investigation revealed heartbreaking video of man's death, case gets a second look

About eight hours later, Wingo died alone in a padded room. 

After the investigation into Wingo’s death published this past August, the sheriff’s office stopped providing jail records to The Reveal, citing an ongoing investigation into his death and others underway by Wade’s law firm.

11Alive has asked the sheriff’s office when the records will be released, as the court has ordered, but has not heard back yet.

The Reveal is an investigative show exposing inequality, injustice, and ineptitude created by people in power throughout Georgia and across the country.    

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