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Letter Raises Questions About Death Of Mentally Ill Inmate

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Posted at 4:05 PM, Aug 20, 2014
and last updated 2015-09-07 14:27:10-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - New evidence in the death of a mentally ill inmate at Nashville's Riverbend Maximum Security Institution has raised questions about the entire case.

A federal jury determined last year corrections officers did nothing wrong in the death of inmate Jason Toll.

But Toll's attorneys claim they never received a critical piece of evidence from the state that would have changed the way they tried the case.

A resignation letter, written by one of the corrections officers who witnessed Toll's death, criticizes the state's internal investigation.

It also claims that corrections officers were told to falsify records about the amount of training they received.

"This has really taken us by surprise," said attorney David Weissman, who represented Toll's mother. "Frankly, I'm a little stunned by it."

Attorneys for Jason Toll's mother were shocked when they read the letter that NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained from the Department of Correction.

"We had no idea of the letter's existence when we were preparing the case for trial," Attorney Jeff Roberts said.

The letter written was written by Officer William Amonette. Amonette recorded the entire cell extraction that preceded Toll's death.

In August 2010, officers armed with shock shields and riot gear forcibly removed Toll from his cell at Riverbend.

Toll had a history of mental illness and had refused to open the door to his cell.

On the video, you hear Toll say over and over that he could not breathe. Officers handcuffed his hands and feet and took him, face down, to an unlit prison yard.

Toll, 33, died minutes later.

The autopsy ruled it a homicide and said he died after guards pressed their shields on his back.

Toll's mother, Jane Luna, sued the officers for violating her son's civil rights.

A federal jury heard the case and determined the officers did nothing wrong. But the attorneys said Amonette's letter would have changed their approach to the case.

"That letter was not provided," attorney David Weissman said.

Amonette resigned six months after the extraction.

He wrote to the warden at Riverbend that he was "treated poorly" after asking "about the witnesses in the Charles Toll case that were not spoken to by Internal Affairs."

But even more surprising, Amonette claimed he was told to falsify training records -- to make it look like he received more training than he actually did. He claimed other officers were told to do the same.

He concluded with, "I cannot work somewhere where asking questions or trying to do what is right is punished."

Jeff Roberts said, "Training was a central theme of our trial, so the very fact that we didn't have this, and we asked for it, is the concerning part."

Roberts and Weissman claim they asked the state three different ways to provide Amonette's letter -- most directly by asking for the "personnel files" of all defendants.

In a deposition, Amonette said his "eight-page" resignation letter was in his personnel file.

The letter that NewsChannel 5 Investigates received from the Department of Correction was just one page long.

"I am very concerned that it may not have been provided intentionally, which opens up a whole set of questions that are relevant to this case," Weissman said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Correction said there was no effort to withhold the letter.

She said attorneys should have received it because the department turned over Amonette's entire personnel file.

Toll's attorneys said Toll's mother is looking into whether to retry the case with this new information.

UPDATE: A spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Correction, Neysa Taylor, stated in an email on Aug. 12 that "The personnel file which included Amonette's resignation letter was provided as part of the discovery file." By phone, Taylor insisted the department turned the entire file over to the Attorney General's Office which defended the officers for the Department in the federal lawsuit. She said it was up to that office to turn the file over to attorneys for Toll's mother.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates submitted a public records request to the Attorney General's Office for the "stamped copy" of the resignation letter from William Amonette that was supposed to be provided to attorneys for Jason Toll's mother. A spokesperson for the Attorney General's Office, Sharon Curtis-Flair, responded via e-mail that they no longer have the information they provided to attorneys for Toll's mother. She then provided a copy of deposition in which Amonette mentioned the resignation letter. Here is the entire statement: "We do not keep discovery we provide the opposing side. The department that provided the documents to us maintains the originals. Attached is a copy of deposition taken prior to the trial in which the letter is mentioned."