CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — A judge in Hamilton County dismissed a 44-count indictment against a former Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputy Friday morning.
"I couldn't watch it. Seeing what he was doing to my son. I just couldn't watch all of it," says Wanda Thurman.
The charges stem from a video forcing Wanda Thurman to close her eyes.
The dashcam video in question shows Sheriff's deputy Daniel Wilkey stripping, searching, and hitting her son James Mitchell during a traffic stop in 2019, where he was charged with possession of drugs. Mitchell claims Wilkey used excessive force.
In fact, he's one of 5 accusing the former deputy of misconduct, leading to 44 criminal charges against Wilkey.
"That shouldn't happen to nobody, regardless of what kind of record they have," says Thurman.
Mitchell says Wilkey sexually assaulted him, by strip-searching him on the side of the road.
But Friday morning, on the advice of a special prosecutor, the judge threw out all criminal charges.
A decision that shocked and saddened Thurman. "When the judge said dismissed I looked at my husband Richard and I said. Did they say dismissed?"
Daniel Wilkey's charges of rape, sexual battery, extortion and assault in the indictment, were filed almost 4 years ago.
The move by Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman came after a prosecutor said he “sees no avenue of prosecution” in the case against former Hamilton County deputy Daniel Wilkey, news outlets reported.
“Justice demands this case be dismissed,” Steelman said.
Special prosecutor Kevin Allen filed a motion to dismiss the case because he said former Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston failed to provide him with case files and other investigative avenues including a review of civil litigation did not support prosecution.
Mitchell's sister Melanie Mitchell says the family believes the dismissal reveals systemic racism in the Hamilton County justice system.
It is very disheartening, and it just speaks volumes to the fact that they are two different types of criminal justice systems," says Mitchell. "There's criminal justice system for Caucasians. There's a criminal justice system for African Americans. If an African American police officer did these things to Caucasians as Wilkey did, he would have been immediately fired, arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned.
Multiple lawsuits had accused Wilkey of misconduct during traffic stops, including an illegal drug search, a forced baptism and groping girls.
Wilkey's attorney, Benjamin McGowan, released this statement on his behalf shortly after his case was dismissed:
The Wilkey family is grateful for the honest, disciplined, and thorough investigation undertaken by the special prosecutor in this case. His findings, through painstaking analysis of the evidence, corroborate what we have maintained since the beginning: that the former district attorney’s criminal charges against Mr. Wilkey were factually unfounded and should never have been filed.
We spoke with former D.A. Pinkston Friday afternoon. He told us the charge by the prosecutor failed to provide him with case files is "absolutely not true."
"It's the property of the office of the county,' Pinkston told us. 'And to suggest that somehow I kept something that didn't belong to me is offensive. And it's not true. And, you know, it's important today that people understood stand and still understand that I took my oath as a district attorney very seriously.
We also spoke with Hamilton County Sheriff Austin Garrett on Friday. Garrett was Deputy Sheriff of Hamilton County when the Wilkey indictments were handed down.
Garrett said even though Wilkey's criminal charges were dismissed, he still believes Wilkey committed some 'sustained policy violations.' Garrett said he respects the court's decision that those violations didn't rise to the level of criminal intent.
You can't rush to judgment on things,' Sheriff Garrett said. 'People should be cautious about things that happened with government, they should question things, but they also should give it time to run its course. That's why I want to stress to always let the legal system run its course. Because the end result, a lot of times gonna be completely different than when it began. Completely different.
In regard to Mitchell's case, a DA's office report says that he contradicted himself because he initially told investigators he did have the cocaine before later claiming it was planted by Wilkey. The report says he told officers on scene he wasn’t hurt during the stop, before later claiming he was sexually assaulted by Wilkey during a cavity search.
Former Hamilton County DA Neil Pinkston says he was the one who initially requested an investigation into Wilkey after receiving numerous complaints about the deputy.
"It still is disturbing," says Pinkston.
He says Austin Garrett brought the video involving Mitchell to his attention in 2019 while Garrett was the deputy sheriff.
We took the concerns of Mitchell's family to Garrett.
"There's a difference in a policy infraction with someone in government violating an agency's policies, versus it being criminal," says Garrett.
It's a battle now in federal court, as Mitchell's family hopes a federal civil suit will hold Wilkey responsible.
Back in March, a judge dismissed several federal claims against the sheriff's office tied to Wilkey.
Wilkey was the deputy accused, in part, of baptizing a woman in Soddy Lake, in exchange for lessening her charge.
A 250-page deposition of Sheriff Jim Hammond we obtained revealed an Internal Affairs investigation wasn't opened into this bizarre encounter until months later even though Wilkey's superiors knew what happened.
After the baptism story broke, 10 lawsuits, including Mitchell's, were filed against Wilkey and the county, accusing them of illegal searches, sexual misconduct, and negligence.
The lawsuits claim the sheriff’s office failed to properly train the deputies on search procedures, and didn’t act fast enough to suspend or discipline them after cases of misconduct.
The federal judge dismissed claims from one of the federal lawsuits that the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office violated several people's civil rights but they still face claims of invasive searches of some of Daniel Wilkey's accusers in those suits.
Sheriff Garrett says while he understands the frustrations of some, he urged the public to learn as much as they can about this case.
I would encourage the public to really look at this case, from cradle to grave, how it started, all the way through the courts ruling, prosecutors ruling today, the specimen charges, and also the civil case, all the all the paperwork that's been filed that's available to the public is looking a lot of that, and you'll get a lot better picture of the entire circumstances and everything that has transpired.
Read Wilkey's attorneys' motion to dismiss the indictments below.
Wilkey still faces at least five civil lawsuits for alleged strip searches, excessive force, as well as other crimes.
Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp had recused herself from this case. After Wilkey's case was dismissed, she released this statement:
“When elected, I requested that a District Attorney General Pro Tem be appointed to handle Mr. Wilkey’s cases in order to avoid any appearance of a conflict since I formally acted as counsel for the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office. This morning, a special prosecutor, District Attorney General Pro Tem Kevin Allen filed a motion to dismiss all counts contained in indictment number 309325.
I am confident that General Allen’s evaluation of the case was fair and that the outcome reflects a system that seeks truth and justice.”
Depend on us to keep you posted as we learn more.