‘Ocala Gazette’ sues MCSO over video of jail inmate’s death at hands of deputies

Crime scene photo of the cell at Marion County Jail where Scott Whitley was killed. He was held in the cell without clothing, bedding, or medication days.

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Posted February 29, 2024 | By Caroline Brauchler

The “Ocala Gazette” has filed a lawsuit in Marion County Circuit Court against the Marion County Sheriff’s Office over its refusal to release public records relating to the Nov. 25, 2022 death of inmate Scott Whitley in the Marion County jail.

The “Gazette” seeks to obtain surveillance footage from Whitley’s jail cell that purportedly shows several detention deputies using what his family claims was excessive force against the inmate to gain his compliance. Over the course of the 12-minute altercation that led to Whitley’s death, the nine officers involved deployed tasers 27 times and used pepper foam and physical force to subdue him.

The medical examiner’s office ruled Whitley’s death a homicide as a result of “cardiac arrhythmia during physical restraint by law enforcement.”

With the lawsuit filed on Feb. 28, the “Gazette” asks the court to hold an immediate hearing in accordance with the Public Records Act; to find that the records the newspaper is seeking are subject to disclosure; to find that MCSO had a duty to disclose these records; to find that MCSO’s delay in releasing the records was unjustified; to find that MCSO’s refusal to release the records was unlawful; to order MCSO to permit the “Gazette” access to the footage without delay; and to award the “Gazette” compensation for attorney’s fees, costs and expenses accrued.

Jennifer Hunt Murty, publisher for the “Gazette” explained why the newspaper was filing suit as a matter of public interest.

“I think the reason this jail cell video needs to be considered publicly is so that we are faced with what happens to the mentally ill when families don’t have the resources to care for them. Once we acknowledge the situation, we can have a robust and honest conversation about how we can fix it. We need to have this conversation not only to help those afflicted and their families, but also for the sake of law enforcement who we’ve essentially dumped the problem on without the resources to handle,” Murty said.

MCSO has indicated all further communications regarding Whitely shall go through attorneys and declined a meeting to discuss the matter.

Whitley, 46, was diagnosed as schizophrenic and bipolar and was being held as a suicide precaution inmate. Whitley was denied his medication and was kept naked and alone without bedding, forced to sleep on a concrete slab.

Whitley was awaiting trial after being arrested on charges of violating a civil injunction from his parents and resisting an officer with violence when they tried to remove him from his parent’s home. Whitley’s parents, Scott Whitley Jr., 81, and Margaret Whitley, 77, filed the injunction in 2022 to have him removed from their home because he was unmedicated for his mental health conditions.

The family said they feared for their safety at times due to their son’s symptoms of schizophrenia and his strength, which they wanted to prevent from escalating into violence. Whitley had no prior criminal history, and his family told the “Gazette” that when he took his medication, he was pleasant.

Under an agreement with the MCSO, the family received video footage of the incident under the condition that they do not share it with anyone. The “Gazette” has asked MCSO to enter into a similar agreed court order for the footage, and MCSO has denied the request.

The family’s description of the events shown on the tape differs greatly from how MCSO has portrayed the incident.

The family claims the video depicts Whitley cooperating with detention deputies and submitting to having his cell searched before deputies repeatedly tased him, used pepper foam and physical force to subdue him.

As a result of obtaining the video, the family filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit in November 2023 against MCSO, Sheriff Billy Woods and six deputies which remains pending.

As shown in his autopsy, medical examiner ruled Whitley’s death a homicide as a result of “cardiac arrhythmia during physical restraint by law enforcement.” He also suffered from an enlarged heart and liver, lack of oxygen to the brain, and brain hemorrhage among other conditions, according to the autopsy report.

Nine deputies were involved in the incident, six of whom entered Whitley’s cell. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement conducted an external investigation into the incident, the findings of which were shared with State Attorney Bill Gladson, who decided to not pursue criminal charges against any of the deputies.

Based on the Whitley family’s claims that the footage revealed inappropriate use of force by law enforcement, in addition to MCSO not allowing the “Gazette” to obtain this footage to corroborate or dispute these claims, the “Gazette” has sued the MCSO to obtain the footage.

The “Gazette” was first denied this public record on Nov. 30, 2022. The former general counsel for the MCSO, Tim McCourt, claimed an exemption under Florida Statutes §119.071(3)(a)1 and §281.301, saying the footage was confidential to protect the identities of the deputies involved and to keep confidential the operations of the jail as a security measure.

The deputies involved in Whitley’s death all claimed that their identities could be shielded from the public under Marsy’s Law, which keeps confidential the identities of people who are victims of a crime. The Florida Supreme Court in December ruled Marsy’s Law does not shield from public disclosure the identities of police officers in fatal incidents.

The “Gazette,” in turn, has argued this ruling is grounds for MCSO to release the footage as it is part of a public record.

The MCSO next said the cell footage falls under another exemption that states video surveillance can be shielded from the public if it would compromise the facility’s security.

In its suit, the “Gazette” claims a video of the inside of a single jail cell does not compromise security of the entire MCSO jail complex.

Marissa Duquette, who has taken over for McCourt as MCSO’s general counsel, claimed a statutory exemption under §119.071(3)(a)1 on Jan. 3. The “Gazette” requested on Jan. 13 to obtain the audio of the incident in Whitley’s cell. This request was denied on Jan. 16.

The “Gazette” next asked the MCSO to be allowed to view the footage, rather than receive a copy of it to share with the public. This, too, was denied. On Feb. 19, MCSO again denied the release of the audio and video footage despite the “Gazette” expressing its intent to pursue legal action.

The newspaper is being represented by MDM Legal, PLLC. Their office is located in West Palm Beach but they practice law across the state and country.

Attorneys for the firm said the reason the firm was taking on the lawsuit, was because of their “passion for–and years of experience across the country in–civil rights law, First Amendment media cases, and public records matters.”









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