Federal judges dismiss case against Hamilton County deputy who filmed baptism

Jacob Goforth / Staff file photo provided by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office
Jacob Goforth / Staff file photo provided by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office

The deputy who recorded former Hamilton County Deputy Daniel Wilkey as he performed an alleged forced baptism on a woman had his charges dismissed by three federal judges Thursday.

The opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit reversed the District Court's denial of qualified immunity to Deputy Jacob Goforth, effectively dismissing the federal charges against him.

___

DOCUMENT

___

Wilkey pulled Shandle Riley over in Soddy-Daisy shortly after 9 p.m. Feb. 6, 2019, according to a Sheriff's Office affidavit. During the stop, Riley, who died from an accidental drug overdose in 2022, admitted to having a marijuana roach in her cigarette case.

Wilkey then offered to baptize Riley and issue a citation in lieu of jail time for possession of an illegal substance, according to Riley's deposition.

Wilkey called Goforth to witness the baptism, according to Goforth's deposition. He said he recorded Riley's baptism in Soddy Lake on his cellphone to "protect all persons present and document the event."

Gerald Tidwell, Goforth's attorney, was pleased with Thursday's developments.

"It's always gratifying to work hard on a case and get a good outcome," Tidwell said by phone, adding that Goforth had been unjustly vilified.

"Riley admitted in her deposition that Goforth could not know if she had been coerced into the baptism," Tidwell said. "It's nice to have the court acknowledge that."

Goforth said one of the reasons he believed Riley participated in the baptism voluntarily was because she arrived at Soddy Lake in her own vehicle, according to his deposition.

"Riley's claims against Goforth are on shaky ground because, for a right to be clearly established, the 'legal principle must have a sufficiently clear foundation in then-existing precedent,'" the judges' opinion said. "Our question is whether Goforth should have known — or more accurately, whether every reasonable officer in Goforth's shoes should have known — that a reasonable person in Riley's shoes would have felt that she had been seized. On the facts available to Goforth during this incident, we answer that question, 'no.'"

Robin Flores, who is representing Riley's estate in ongoing litigation, said in a text to the Chattanooga Times Free Press that he is "evaluating whether to appeal to U.S. Supreme Court."

On April 14, 2022, Riley was found unresponsive in a cabin in Soddy-Daisy by her landlord. She was pronounced dead at the scene by a Hamilton County paramedic, and a medical examiner later determined her cause of death to be an accidental overdose.

In October 2022, Goforth asked the Court of Appeals for immunity and to be removed from the case.

On Friday, a Hamilton County Criminal Court judge agreed to dismiss all 44 criminal charges against Wilkey.

Goforth continues to work as a deputy with the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

Contact La Shawn Pagán at lpagan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.