TRAVERSE CITY — A settlement puts to bed a lawsuit over Grand Traverse County sheriff's officials withholding of certain details in a jail inmate's suicide.
Attorney Jesse Williams said a mediated agreement will provide "essentially everything" he sought in the July hanging death of Alan Bradley Halloway, 41, behind bars in the county's jail. A protective order still will keep many records — including video footage — from the public's eye, he said.
The agreement also includes a payout — about $10,000 — from the county for expenses Williams incurred while trying to obtain the records, he said.
"These are public bodies that are supposed to be transparent for this very reason," Williams said. "If they’re not doing anything wrong, then they don’t have anything to hide. All of this was truly unnecessary."
Sheriff Tom Bensley said officials tried to work with Williams but were unsuccessful. He said they worked with prosecutors to figure out what public records can be released from the jail — a sensitive question given its inherent security issues.
The settlement may have ended the lawsuit, but it deprived sheriff's officials a chance to have a judge decide on whether they did the "right thing," he said.
"Some of it, I like," Bensley said. "Some of it, I don’t."
The dispute arose after Halloway's death — a matter in which Williams is representing Halloway's family.
Halloway entered the jail on an attempted murder charge in July. Officials noted a potential overdose attempt but he was taken off suicide watch on the recommendation of mental health professionals. Two days later, corrections officers spotted him hanging from a pair of jail-issued socks.
His body was undiscovered for hours.
One officer was fired and another resigned after an investigative report raised questions about disregarded duties. A former county official said one officer was reading a book at the time — an accusation which sheriff's officials neither confirmed nor denied.
But answers came too slowly for Halloway's family and Williams. The police reports that were publicly released featured heavy redactions and omitted interviews with officers and inmates.
Williams eventually filed a lawsuit naming Bensley and claimed he concealed various materials documenting the death, including video footage of the incident. Bensley said Williams could have received the materials if he directly filed a complaint over Halloway's death, but instead attempted to try the case in the "court of public opinion" through a Freedom of Information Act dispute.
The redactions were meant to maintain the jail's safety and physical security, Bensley said.
The case went into mediation, which yielded an agreement closing the lawsuit on April 11. County commissioners on Wednesday emerged from a closed-door session and voted to "proceed" on a settlement with Williams.
Williams hadn't yet received the documentation by the next afternoon, but said if it's the same as the one reached in mediation then sheriff's officials must give up nearly everything he sought. That includes video and emails between sheriff's officials withheld under a "frank communications" exemption in open records law, he said.
A protective order will limit who can view those records, he said.
"It’s just been a huge waste of time," Williams said about the county's fight.
Bensley defended his department's transparency. He said sheriff's officials could have investigated Halloway's and another inmate's suicide themselves, but didn't in the spirit of openness.
"We had somebody else investigate the suicides," he said.