Lawsuit: Blount County Sheriff’s Office ‘culture of violence’ led to man’s death

MARYVILLE (WATE) — A wrongful death lawsuit accuses the Blount County Sheriff’s Office of fostering a “culture of violence” and using excessive force that led to a man’s death.

The lawsuit filed Monday in Knoxville’s U.S. District Court against Deputy Jerry Burns, Deputy James Patty, Sheriff Jim Berrong and the Blount County Government concerns the death of Anthony Edwards. Edwards died in July 2016 following an altercation with police.

Anthony Michael Edwards, 25, of Sevierville (Photo: Sevier County Sheriff’s Office)

Deputy Burns was responding to a suspicious persons call when he spotted Edwards and Travis Hickman walking along Patterson Road near the Winchester Drive intersection on July 25, 2016 at around 1 a.m. The lawsuit claims the pair were “minding their own business,” but Deputy Burns stopped them anyway. Body cam footage shows Deputy Burns proceeded to ask for their identification. Edwards, unarmed, decided to run.

Burns chased after him, threatening to tase Edwards if he did not stop.

“I’m going to tase you! You better stop!” Deputy Burns said.

He proceeded to tase but was unsuccessful.

After what Deputy Burns described in the incident report as a football field-length of running, Edwards tripped and fell.

“I got on top of subject and tried to detain him,” Burns said. He tried to handcuff Edwards but, according to Burns, Edwards was actively resisting and hiding his hands.

Related: Man injured during arrest in Blount County dies

The lawsuit claims Burns slammed Edwards’ head to the ground which caused the deputy’s body camera to stop working.

Audio recording from the night also shows Burns telling another deputy that he slammed Edwards to the ground after his repeated kicks to the groin.

An autopsy later revealing that Edwards sustained a skull fracture and bleeding of the brain. His injuries also included multiple rib fractures and contusions scattered throughout his body.

Edwards can be heard yelling that he was having a seizure.

“I’m having a seizure. I’m having a seizure!” Edwards tells deputies, as heard in dash cam audio recordings.

“Edwards can be heard telling another officer who has arrived, believed to be [Deputy James] Patty, that Burns hit him in the face and to please call 911,” says the lawsuit.

The family says Edwards can also be heard “whimpering in pain and struggling to breathe.”

The family believes Edwards had the right to not talk to law enforcement and to resist an unlawful arrest. The lawsuit says Burns used unlawful use of force and that Edwards was trying to use his right to protect himself.

The wrongful death lawsuit filed in federal court is demanding answers, accusing Deputy Burns of illegally detaining Edwards and using excessive force.

The suit also points blame to the Blount County Sheriff’s Office, alleging the department has a culture of violence.

“This culture of violence within the Blount County Sheriff’s Department had existed for years, long enough for Defendant Berrong and Defendant Blount County to be aware of it,” the lawsuit reads. “By their knowledge and failure to take measures to alter the culture of violence within the Sheriff’s Department, Defendant Berrong and Defendant Blount County have negligently failed their duties and responsibilities as shields of the citizens of Blount County.”

Sheriff James Berrong said in a prepared statement that BCSO stands by its original investigation into the incident.

“Our investigation into the death involving Anthony Michael Edwards is officially closed,” Berrong said in a statement. “Our findings are consistent with the evidence in this case. With the release of the investigative file today, you will see the full story. We do not have the privilege of telling just one side of the story; we must tell the whole story, with the evidence to back up what occurred on the night of July 25. The Blount County District Attorney General reviewed the evidence and based on that evidence, the Attorney General did not move forward with criminal charges against any of the individuals involved.”

The lawsuit also accuses the responding deputies of trying to cover up any wrongdoing.

Family members held a balloon release.

The lawsuit claims Burns made changes to his story of what happened to various law enforcement. On an audio recording, Deputy Patty can be heard telling a supervisor, “Jerry slammed him; you knew that, right?” The lawsuit says the supervisor asked, “was it a slam or a drop?”

Edwards’ family held a balloon release Wednesday night to mark one year since his death.

“He was amazing. He kept our family strong. He was special, very, very special. We just want him to be remembered,” said his sister Patricia Eldridge.

“He loved his kids so much and this is not right for someone to take his life with no reason behind it. And I will see that justice will be done on this,” said his father Michael Edwards.

“Now the truth is coming out and we’re going to fight for justice and get justice. And we can’t wait for our day in court to get that justice for my son because they took something that almost killed me,” said his mother Kimberly Huskey.

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