Lawsuit filed in death of Austin-East teen

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It’s been exactly one year to the day since 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. was shot and killed during a struggle with four Knoxville Police Department officers in a restroom at Austin-East Magnet High School. 

A year since City officials — nerves already frayed by a wave of gang-related shootings that had claimed the lives of several Austin-East students — made the stunning announcement that yet another teen had died, this time at the hands of those who were there to protect them. 

It didn’t take long for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) and District Attorney General Charme Allen to rule the officers wouldn’t be prosecuted criminally in connection with the shooting. It also didn’t take long for the streets of Knoxville, already simmering with discontent over everything from race relations to COVID, to erupt in a series of demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience as many citizens lashed out at a system that many believed was fundamentally corrupt.

On Monday — just before the one-year statute of limitations on civil actions was about to expire — two of Anthony’s loved ones filed a joint lawsuit against the City of Knoxville, Knox County, the Knox County Board of Education and the four officers who confronted Anthony in the restroom on April 12, 2021. 

In addition to unspecified damages and legal fees, Anthony’s mother, Chanada Robinson, and his longtime best friend,18-year-old Gralyn Strong, are demanding that the City and County adopt a series of policies dubbed “Anthony’s Laws” meant to keep similar incidents from happening again. (See related story detailing “Anthony’s Laws” at https://www.hardknoxwire.com/new-anthonys-laws-would-force-changes/)

“The most devastating emotional distress and anguish imagined by humankind”

On the one hand, the complaint filed Monday in federal court is just one more lawsuit. Similar legal actions are filed all over the country every day, as the law allows pretty much anyone to sue anyone else for nearly anything, even if many of those claims are swiftly tossed out of court. In fact, due in part to the many legal protections granted to cops, it’s unusual for civil rights claims against police officers to even make it to trial.

On the other hand, it’s a particularly damning document. There’s no immediate way to independently determine if all of the factual allegations it contains are accurate, thanks largely to the ongoing nature of the internal probes by KPD and the schools (they don’t become public records until they’re completed). But if a future jury decides that many of the allegations are true, then government officials — as well as city and county taxpayers — may end up remembering Anthony’s death as a watershed moment that helped bring about fundamental changes in both law enforcement and education.

For all that, however, the complaint filed Monday is far more than just another lawsuit. As legal filings often are in this day and age, it’s also a type of press release, a calculated public relations move designed to ensure that Robinson’s son isn’t forgotten by either those she had entrusted to keep him safe or the public at large.

It marked the first time that Anthony’s mother — a speech therapist for Knox County Schools — has spoken out about the case in detail and her attorney, Margaret Held, seized upon almost every opportunity to shape her message for maximum visceral impact.

For a legal document packed with litigious abstractions, in fact, it practically screams aloud with pain, its 35 pages a struggle to depict a type of loss that is fundamentally beyond the scope of words to articulate. 

Not only has Chanada Robinson lost her son, the lawsuit claims, but she’s been continually brutalized by a local government that “just wants Anthony to disappear.”

The document describes how she was never told by authorities where her son’s body was, forcing her to repeatedly call area hospitals until she finally located his corpse two days after the shooting. It goes on to say that she’s still making payments on a $16,000 loan she took out to bury Anthony in a grave that, to this day, still has no marker. 

“Anthony’s mother has suffered the most devastating emotional distress and anguish imagined by humankind,” the complaint states. 

Some might be cynical enough to call such language hyperbole. 

But it’s doubtful they’d do so to Chanada Robinson’s face.

Internal affairs probe continues, cops back at work 

District Attorney General Charme Allen discusses the shooting at Austin-East that claimed the life of 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. Photo by Jennifer Stambaugh.

At least some of the basic facts of the case seem beyond dispute, thanks to the video footage and other evidence made public last year by District Attorney Charme Allen after she ruled the officers wouldn’t be prosecuted criminally in connection with Anthony’s death. (See also https://www.hardknoxwire.com/new-da-clears-cops-releases-videos/ and https://www.hardknoxwire.com/new-videos-bring-answers-and-more-questions/). 

The teenager died on the afternoon of April 12, 2021, during a confrontation with KPD Officer Jonathon Clabough, Lieutenant Stanley Cash, Officer Brian Baldwin, and student resource officer (SRO) Adam Willson in a restroom at Austin-East. The officers were trying to take Anthony into custody for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend when a gun he was holding inside his hoodie’s front pocket fired once as he struggled with the officers, striking a nearby trash can. Officer Clabough then fired twice, killing the teen and wounding the school’s SRO, Adam Wilson, in one of his legs.

(From top left, clockwise) Officer Brian Baldwin, Lieutenant Stanley Cash, student resource officer (SRO) Adam Willson, and Officer Jonathon Clabough.

The officers might not have faced criminal charges, but the man who obtained the Glock 9mm pistol for Anthony a week before the shooting pleaded guilty in February of this year to making false statements while purchasing a firearm. Kelvon Foster, 22, a lifelong friend of Anthony’s, faces up to ten years in federal prison when he’s sentenced in June, court records show.

Although it’s been nearly 12 months since Allen and the TBI cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing, investigators from KPD’s Internal Affairs Unit (IAU) only recently began their review of the case, according to KPD spokesperson Scott Erland.

“The internal investigation into the incident is still ongoing,” Erland said Monday. “The Internal Affairs Unit only recently received the TBI case file since an individual was charged for purchasing the gun for Anthony Thompson Jr., and that portion of the case had to be completely adjudicated before IAU could obtain a copy.”

He continued: “We cannot complete the administrative review or progress beyond a certain point until the criminal process has been fully completed. That process takes precedence over the administrative review, and we do not want to interfere in that process. We also need the TBI file for the statements provided and complete picture of the events as documented by the TBI as part of their investigation.”

When asked when the IAU probe might be finished, Erland declined to say. 

“I cannot provide an estimate of when the IAU case will be completed, nor can I comment on any of the particulars of that internal review since it remains ongoing at this time,” he said.

When asked about the status of the four officers who confronted Anthony, Erland explained that they all still work for the law enforcement agency. 

“The four officers involved in that incident have returned to active duty, but most are in different roles than they were at the time of the incident,” he said. 

“Brian Baldwin currently works in West District Patrol,” he continued. “Stan Cash is now assigned as the KPD’s Wellness Coordinator to oversee the Department’s officer and employee wellness program. Jonathon Clabough is an investigator in the Property Crimes Unit. Adam Willson is assigned to the Training Unit and works out of the Training Academy. A school resource officer is still assigned to Austin-East.” 

Both Erland and Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon said Monday they would make no statements on the lawsuit.

“The City of Knoxville does not comment on pending litigation,” Kincannon said. “However, I can say that April 12, 2021 was a tragic day for the Thompson family, our officers, the school system, and our entire city. Anthony Thompson died before reaching his full potential and my thoughts remain with his family today.”

A horrific toll 

In this still frame pulled from KPD body cam footage of the incident, Anthony’s best friend, Gralyn Strong, is ordered to the ground at gunpoint by Officer Clabough.

The memories of Anthony’s last moments alive remain especially vivid to Gralyn Strong, according to court records. The two young men had been inseparable friends since elementary school, and Strong had been hanging out with his friend in the restroom when the officers entered, looking for Anthony.

Gralyn, who was 17 last year, was in a nearby stall when his best friend was shot. 

What he experienced that day has changed his life for the worse, according to the complaint.

“At 3:12:32, after hearing the gun fire, Gralyn Strong came out of the bathroom stall next to the one previously occupied by Anthony. Upon seeing Anthony fall to the floor, he shouted, ‘God damn!’ Gralyn came out of the bathroom stall with his hands up and did not pose any danger to Defendants,” the lawsuit says.

“Officer Clabough had his gun drawn and displayed it at Gralyn, and he yelled at Gralyn to get on the ground. Gralyn complied with Officer Clabough’s commands and sat on the ground and then laid on his stomach with his hands out. Gralyn saw Anthony’s leg still moving. Gralyn repeatedly shouted to the Defendants, ‘That’s my brother! Forget me! Help my brother!’ ‘Please help him! Please!’ ‘Please!’ ‘What ya’ll doin’!’ ‘He’s bleeding!’ ‘Ya’ll is trippin’!’ ‘Please! Please!’”

The complaint continues: “Officer Clabough ignored Gralyn’s pleas to help his best friend and grabbed Gralyn’s hands and placed him in handcuffs. At no time was Gralyn suspected of committing, nor did he commit, any crimes. Gralyn did not possess any illegal substances or items and was never a suspect in Defendants’ investigation. Defendants were not looking for Gralyn. Office Clabough and the other Defendants had no reason to believe that Gralyn was a threat to them or was in anyway obstructing Defendants’ actions. Defendants complied with all of Defendants commands, and without probable cause or an arrest warrant, Defendants unlawfully and unreasonably seized Gralyn.

“Instead of administering CPR to Anthony, Officer Clabough searched Gralyn’s person. Gralyn began sobbing uncontrollably while Officer Cash stood over Anthony’s prone body and washed Anthony’s blood from his hands in the bathroom sink. No officer or any school nurse appears on the video or in the audio recording to administer any first aid or medical assistance to Anthony. Officer Willson was offered a tourniquet.”

“Officer Cash stood over Anthony’s prone body and washed Anthony’s blood from his hands in the bathroom sink,” the lawsuits says while describing this section of the body cam footage.

The lawsuit goes on to say that, before the incident, Gralyn “was a healthy young man with no medical problems.”

“As a result of witnessing Defendants kill Anthony, Gralyn started to have nervous breakdowns, panic attacks around police officers, and difficulty interacting with others, which prevented him from returning to school,” the complaint states. “Gralyn started counseling on or around May 5, 2021. Gralyn was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Major Depression Disorder caused (by) witnessing his best friend since the fifth grade bleed out and die. Gralyn’s medical condition was so severe that he could no longer attend school physically and had to be enrolled in a virtual school for the remainder of the school year.”

Essentially, the lawsuit accuses both KPD and the Knox County school system of violating Anthony’s constitutional rights in several ways, a key claim if the case is to succeed in federal court.

According to Robinson’s and Gralyn’s attorneys, the officers didn’t follow the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOA) that governed how police should behave on school campuses.

In fact, they allege, school officials routinely ignored the rules by allowing police onto school property.

“By the acts and omissions described in this Complaint, Knox County Board of Education is liable due to the Board having actual or constructive notice that its employee or agent, acting in his official capacity, was allowing the Knoxville Police Department into the school without engaging the principal; this practice is so common as to amount to a tacit policy of casual, unmonitored and un-advised interactions between officers and the student population; this interaction was the moving force that led to the shooting death of Anthony Thompson, depriving him of his life without due process of law and to Ms. Robinson’s constitutional deprivation of her right to the care, custody and society of her child, and Gralyn Strong’s emotional distress,” the lawsuit says.

Knox Schools spokesperson Carly Harrington said that school officials “are unable to comment on pending litigation.”

The defendants have yet to file any response to the complaint, and no trial date has been set. 

A motorcade of protesters travels westbound on Middlebrook Pike to stage a demonstration in front of a house they mistakenly believed to belong to Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen last year. Photo by Jennifer Stambaugh.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on April 12, 2022.