Appeal filed in forced baptism case involving Hamilton County deputy

Staff photo / Hamilton County Sheriff's Deputy Daniel Wilkey, 26, sits in Judge Barry Steelman's courtroom Friday morning, Dec. 20, 2019.
Staff photo / Hamilton County Sheriff's Deputy Daniel Wilkey, 26, sits in Judge Barry Steelman's courtroom Friday morning, Dec. 20, 2019.

The estate of a woman who alleged a Hamilton County Sheriff's deputy forcibly baptized her has filed an appeal, contesting a judge's decision to grant qualified immunity to the deputy who witnessed the incident.

Attorney Robin Flores, on behalf of the estate of Shandel Riley, filed the appeal in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday, saying Deputy Jacob Goforth could have prevented the baptism conducted by then-Deputy Daniel Wilkey.

"Riley did not consent to a baptism ... Goforth was aware that Wilkey had cited Riley prior to the baptism," the appeal stated, adding that "any reasonable officer" would have recognized Riley had been coerced into participating in the baptism.

District Court Judge Travis R. McDonough ruled in April that Goforth qualified for reasonable immunity, while noting Goforth failed to intervene as Wilkey exercised excessive use of force, according to the opinion.

Qualified or reasonable immunity is an affirmative defense that shields government officials from liability if their conduct does not violate clearly established rights.

"A qualified immunity defense boils down to the question of whether the officers violated a 'clearly established' right ... in this case, the right to be free from unlawful seizure and freedom from state sanctioned religion," the 68-page appeal stated, arguing that Riley's baptism was in violation of her First Amendment constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Wilkey pulled Riley over shortly after 9 p.m. on Feb. 6, 2019, in the Soddy-Daisy area. Riley then admitted to being in possession of a marijuana cigarette, according to her sworn testimony during a deposition.

The traffic stop lasted over an hour, according to Riley's testimony and dashcam footage submitted to the court. After an hour, Deputy Tyler McRae left to answer another call.

Riley said in her deposition that Wilkey told her that if she allowed him to baptize her, he would let her go with just a citation, to which she agreed. Wilkey called Goforth to witness the baptism.

Goforth met Wilkey and Riley at Soddy Lake and recorded the baptism on his cellphone, according to testimony Goforth gave in a deposition. Goforth claimed he did not believe Riley was there against her will because she arrived in her own vehicle.

Although McDonough's April opinion stated Goforth had no training in separation of church and state, it also noted that Goforth -- who had been working at the Sheriff's Office for six years at the time of the baptism -- "knew that performing baptisms while on duty was not law enforcement or department duty."

Using the Nov. 3 decision from the 6th U. S. Circuit Court in another case involving Wilkey -- in which three justices agreed Wilkey and McRae were in violation of William Klaver's constitutional rights after prolonging a traffic stop for a window-tint violation -- Flores petitioned the court to reconsider its previous immunity ruling.

Earlier this year, Riley was found unresponsive by her landlord in her Soddy-Daisy home. A Hamilton County medical examiner later ruled her death the result of an accidental overdose. Her lawsuit is moving forward in court under an estate administrator.

Wilkey, who has been indicted with 44 criminal charges along with facing other civil lawsuits involving the alleged groping of underage girls and the body cavity search of a Black man, during two separate traffic stops, is due to appear before Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman on Feb. 2 in relation to the criminal charges. He has pleaded not guilty.

Contact La Shawn Pagán at lpagan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.

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