Georgia Sheriff Stonewalling Official Jail Death Investigation, Medical Examiner Says
The Clayton County Sheriff’s Office is refusing to share information about in-custody deaths with the medical examiner’s office, which is responsible for conducting investigations.
Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg Mar 10, 2023
Alan Willison was arrested on a forgery charge in October and sent to Georgia’s scandal-plagued Clayton County Jail, where he’d spend the last three months of his life. On January 26, he died at the age of 32.
Willison’s mother, Tracie Emerson, was on her way to work when she received a call from the hospital telling her that her son had died of cardiac arrest, she said in an interview with The Appeal. Then the jail called and told her he’d died of prostate cancer—which he didn’t have.
“So there was already conflict right there about what happened,” Emerson told The Appeal. “I just don’t understand a lot of this.”
Six weeks later, many questions about Willison’s death remain. Not even the Clayton County Medical Examiner’s Office, which is responsible for investigating all in-custody deaths at the jail, has been able to get answers. Brian Byars, director of the medical examiner’s office, says the sheriff is refusing to provide him with documents related to Willison’s case.
In an interview with The Appeal, Byars said the sheriff’s stonewalling is “dramatically delaying” the investigation into Willison’s death.
“When you don’t get all sides of the story or you don’t get all the information, it’s really hard to come up with a final conclusion of what happened,” he said. “It completely shuts us down from being able to come to a very well-rounded conclusion.”
The sheriff’s office has failed to comply with three subpoenas requesting numerous documents, including incident reports and communications through the inmate messaging system, Byars said. In February, the medical examiner’s office filed a petition with the Superior Court of Clayton County, which accused the sheriff of acting in “bad faith.” Local news outlet WSB-TV was first to report on the filing.
The medical examiner’s office has asked the court to intervene and order the sheriff to comply with the subpoena. The sheriff’s office did not respond to a request for comment by publication.
“I just hope that the public and the citizens of our county feel confident that we’re not going to rest until we get the full story,” said Byars.
But more stonewalling may be yet to come. On Feb. 26, Byars sent a letter to the county police department (an agency separate from the sheriff’s office), metro area hospitals, and the fire department, requesting that they notify the medical examiner’s office immediately if they have or receive knowledge of any in-custody deaths. The “unusual request” was necessary because the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office had communicated that, “they would no longer be contacting us … in regard to in-custody deaths,” wrote Byars. State law requires a “law enforcement officer or other person having knowledge” of in-custody deaths to report them to the coroner or county medical examiner.
The Clayton County Sheriff’s office has been accused of mistreating detainees for years. On Oct. 26—the same day Willison was booked at the jail—former sheriff Vincent Hill was convicted of violating the constitutional rights of detainees when he strapped them into restraint chairs for hours. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. Federal prosecutors have requested a 46-month sentence. In December, his godson, Levon Allen, was sworn in as the interim sheriff. Allen, who Hill has endorsed, is running for a full term against four challengers in a special election. Early voting has already started for the March 21 election.