Home A project of States Newsroom
News
Tennessee Lookout fights for release of video in Grainger County slaughterhouse raid case

Share

Tennessee Lookout fights for release of video in Grainger County slaughterhouse raid case

Aug 12, 2022 | 10:02 am ET
By Jamie Satterfield
Share
Tennessee Lookout fights for release of video in Grainger County slaughterhouse raid case
Description
(Getty Images)

The Tennessee Lookout is fighting for the public’s right to see video footage of alleged brutality by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security agent during a Grainger County slaughterhouse raid.

Nashville attorney Paul McAdoo with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on Wednesday filed a motion in U.S. District Court in Knoxville on behalf of the nonprofit news organization. The motion seeks the unsealing of video of Agent John Witsell’ treatment of a Hispanic worker at Southeastern Provision slaughterhouse in Bean Station in April 2018.

Witsell and attorneys for other federal agents involved in the raid are trying to keep the public from seeing video a Tennessee Lookout investigation has shown reveals Witsell placing his boot on the neck of a Hispanic worker who was facedown on the ground with his hands behind his back and keeping it there for 25 seconds.

The tactic mirrors that employed by former Minneapolis Police Department Officer Derek Chauvin in the May 2020 death of George Floyd. After video of Chauvin’s actions went public, he was arrested and convicted in state court of causing Floyd’s death and in federal court of violating Floyd’s civil rights. The video helped fuel a nationwide call for police reforms, especially in cases involving people of color.

The motion seeks the unsealing of video of Agent John Witsell’ treatment of a Hispanic worker at Southeastern Provision slaughterhouse in Bean Station in April 2018.

Witsell and attorneys for other federal agents involved in the raid are trying to keep the public from seeing video, a Tennessee Lookout investigation revealed, that appears to show Witsell placing his booted foot on the neck of a Hispanic worker who was facedown on the ground with his hands behind his back and keeping it there for 25 seconds.

The tactic is akin to that employed by former Minneapolis Police Department Officer Derek Chauvin in the May 2020 death of George Floyd. After video of Chauvin’s actions went public, he was arrested and convicted in state court of causing Floyd’s death and in federal court of violating Floyd’s civil rights. The video helped fuel a nationwide call for police reforms, especially in cases involving people of color.

Witsell and fellow agents argue release of the video of Witsell’s behavior would endanger law enforcers, spark violent protests and prejudice potential jurors in a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the more than 100 Hispanic workers targeted and seized during the Grainger County raid.

But McAdoo argues in the motion on behalf of the Tennessee Lookout that those concerns are “speculative” and overblown, and the public’s right to view the video and agents’ behavior in the raid is paramount.

The alleged violations of workers' civil rights at the hands of federal agents make clear the need for case records, including videos, to be unsealed so journalists can tell a clear and full story to the public.

– Holly McCall, Tennessee Lookout Editor-in-Chief

“The public interest in access to judicial records is always strong,” McAdoo wrote. “The public has a powerful interest in knowing how and why judicial power is exercised … (The video and related description of it) appear to relate to a broader public discourse in Tennessee and nationally regarding the treatment of people of color by law enforcement. Because this is a case involving the constitutional rights of (slaughterhouse workers), the public interest is further magnified.”

Agents insisted under oath before now-retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Guyton they only intended to seek records supporting tax evasion charges against the slaughterhouse owner in the April 2018 raid. Instead, court records show, the agents for months had been planning what turned out to be the largest workplace immigration raid in Tennessee in more than a decade.

A handful of those workers filed suit, alleging a plot months in the making to violate Hispanic workers’ rights as part of then-President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to get tough on illegal immigration. U.S. District Judge Travis McDonough earlier this week agreed to certify the case as a class-action lawsuit, which will allow all workers impacted in the raid to seek justice via one trial.

Motion: ‘Unsupported speculation’ of harm not enough

The U.S. Supreme Court has long upheld the public’s right to both see courts in action and review judicial records to ensure a fair system of justice in America. The Tennessee Lookout, which operates under the umbrella of nonprofit States Newsroom and launched in 2020, focuses its coverage on public interest reporting.

McAdoo noted in the motion filed on behalf of the news organization that “members of the press, like the Tennessee Lookout, have standing to intervene to oppose sealing of judicial records.”

The burden Witsell and his fellow agents must carry in order to prevent the public from viewing the video in question is heavy, and McAdoo contends they have failed to do so in this case.

“(Agents) arguments fall well short of satisfying their heavy burden to justify sealing,” McAdoo wrote. “(Agents) assert two interests in favor of closure, both of which are speculative and patently insufficient to overcome the public’s presumptive rights of access to the judicial records at issue. These interests (asserted by the agents) are speculative and demonstrably insufficient to justify the secrecy sought by (the agents).

“(The agents) do not even attempt to allege a substantial probability that their fair trial rights will be prejudiced,” the motion stated. “Instead, they merely claim that ‘filing the video … in the public record has the potential to prejudice potential jurors.’ Public access to factual information, like (the video), has generally been found not to threaten a defendant’s fair trial rights.

“(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 continued.

Tennessee Lookout Editor-in-Chief Holly McCall said Thursday the news organization believes Tennesseans have a right to know the full details of federal agents’ actions in the raid.

“The alleged violations of workers’ civil rights at the hands of federal agents make clear the need for case records, including videos, to be unsealed so journalists can tell a clear and full story to the public,” McCall said. “The allegations of brutality would be severe enough had they occurred in private industry, but that government agents are the alleged perpetrators makes them more serious and violate the public trust. ”

Workers allege in the lawsuit that were targeted solely based on their race and ethnicity, handcuffed and detained without legal cause, mocked and, in at least two instances involving Witsell, brutalized.

Tennessee Lookout’s Motion to Intervene in slaughterhouse raid case by Anita Wadhwani on Scribd