Here’s another one for Justice Scalia’s files on “the new police professionalism.”
Jesse Lee Williams, Jr. was apparently beaten to death last February by sheriff’s department officials in Harrison County, Mississippi. I’m not sure why he was originally arrested — what I’ve found thus far only mentions “misdemeanors.” What is clear, however, is that he was severely and savagely beaten while in police custody, and died as a result of that beating.
Sheriff George Payne originally told the media that Williams was under the influence of drugs at time of his beating. That excuse proved difficult to defend when Williams’ post-mortem toxicology report later came back clean. He wasn’t even too drunk to drive.
The beating was apparently videotaped by four separate cameras. But six months later, neither the media nor Williams’ estate has been given access to the tapes. None of the officers responsible for Williams’ death have been arrested, though Deputy Ryan Teel, who seems to have been the one who inflicted the most abuse, was finally fired from the police force.
Thus far, the more lurid details of Williams’ death have come from nurses on duty at the time in the jail and a taped interview with a man named Paul McBee, who witnessed the beating. From the complaint:
On February 4, 2006 Jessie Lee Williams, Jr. was arrested by the Gulfport Police Department and charged with misdemeanors. He was speaking loudly and protesting his innocence. Prior to his arrival at the Harrison County Adult Detention Facility, the Gulfport officer called in and informed the booking officers that we have a “live one” coming in. Ryan Teel stated, “it’s about time we got some action around here,” and he and Regina Rhodes put on their black leather gloves. They met Jessie at the door, but Jessie was behaving properly, and not in a manner expected by the booking officers. He was told to stand up against the wall next to a man he was brought in with and next to two Hispanic males. Jessie stepped away from the wall and Teel marched over to him and slammed Jessie into the wall –very hard. Jessie protested, and eventually stepped about a foot away from the wall again, at which time, Regina Rhodes, stomped over to him and slammed him into the wall. Jessie proclaimed, that they were wrong for that, that you shouldn’t hit a man in hand cuffs, and if they wanted to fight, they should take the handcuffs off and fight fair — one on one. Ryan Teel said “I’ll give you that opportunity in a few minutes when I finish my paperwork.” Teel did finish his paperwork, and then he called Jessie to the counter. Teel took off the cuffs and told him to put his hands on the counter. He did. Teel then asked, “so what is this about you wanting some one on one?” Jessie said something which the witnesses couldn’t understand, but it appeared that he was backing down to Teel. Teel then said, put you shoes on the counter. Jessie bent down to get his shoe and Teel kicked him in the chest. Jessie went back some, but never raised up. Teel again ordered, “put your shoe on the counter.” Jessie reached for his shoe when Teel slapped him very hard in the head. Jessie charged Teel and took Teel down to the ground. Numerous booking officers grabbed Jessie and pulled him off of Teel. Jessie was standing up right when Teel took out his taser and shot Jessie in the back. Jessie went to the ground. Teel put the taser numerous times to Jessie’s back and backside, burning holes in his flesh. Numerous guards started kicking and hitting Jessie. Jessie was screaming, “alright, I give.” Teel dropped on Jessies’s neck and head with his knees, raised up, and then dropped on his head again — repeatedly. Regina Rhodes got on his legs and continued to punch and beat Jessie. Teel started to punch and hammer, and slammed Jessie in the head repeatedly with his fists. They hog-tied Jessie, hands to feet. Blood was pouring from Jessie’s mouth and Regina Rhodes stated, “that is crack-head spit” — so Teel put a sack on Jessie’s head. Regina Rhodes handed Teel a can of pepper spray. Teel sprayed the entire can into the sack. Jessie began thrashing and screaming that he gave up. Rhodes and Teel kicked Jessie more saying, “quit resisting.” Then, with one hand, Teel picked Jessie up, carried him like a suitcase, and dropped him to the floor, face first. He then picked him up again, and dropped him face first to the concrete floor again. The booking guards then rolled Jessie up into an elastic fabric (something like a straight jacket) and put him into the restraining chair. While in the chair, Teel choked and beat Jessie over a period of time. Eventually, when Jessie was unable to raise his head, he poured water on his face and said, “oops, don’t drown.” On the evening of February 4, 2006, there were several other unknown persons present in the booking room. Among them were parol officers assigned to the Harrison County Sheriff Department, one Long Beach Police Department Officer and a Pass Christian Police Officer. Medical personnel assigned to the Harrison County Sheriff Department was also present. Reports say that there were two nurses employed by Health Assurance LLP, a private company that contracts with Harrison County to provide medical services to persons detained at the Harrison County Adult Detention Center. Neither the unknown police officers nor the nurses present sufficiently intervened and stopped the abuse nor did any one provide Jessie with medical assistance when the same was immediately necessary.
According to the complaint, this particular sheriff’s department and this particular deputy had a history of reported inmate abuse that was never properly investigated:
For instance, on August 25, 2005, a Caucasian man arrested for Public Drunk was taken into the shower room by an African-American male booking officer, and when the arrestee did not comply as fast as the officer thought he should, the officer, with his black leather gloves punched the arrestee in the face, and broke his jaw on both sides. A written complaint was filed, but no disciplinary action was taken. Further, on October 3, 2005, when an Hispanic man had difficulty understanding a command to put his shoes on the counter, his inability to understand English was simply assumed to be a failure to comply — resulting in a severe beating involving punching, kicking, until an outside officer arriving with another arrestee yelled, “Hey, did it ever occur to you that he might not be able to speak English.” The booking officer stopped the beating, and with one hand, picked the Hispanic male up by the back of the collar, walked over to a holding cell and threw him inside. Other abuse involved ordering arrestees into the shower/dressing room which had no cameras, the booking guards striking the arrestees, and inciting them to fight them and then step out to the view of the camera where the booking guards would use the typically much smaller arrestees defending themselves which the booking officers would use as their justification to beat them without mercy. Such action took place against all races and both genders. Injuries included many black eyes, broken bones, injured muscles, concussions, and psychological damage beyond description. The worse case of documented abuse known by this attorney, which was committed by Ryan Teel less than 30 days prior to the homicide of Jessie Williams, took place on January 7, 2006, when an intoxicated African American male made the tragic mistake of looking into the female holding cell, which brought down upon him the sadistic wrath of the booking officers who beat, and kicked this man. This man was put into the restraining chair, a/k/a “devil’s chair,” and Teel requested a spit sack. Instead of a spit sack, a sheet was given to Teel, who tightly wrapped the sheet around the man’s head so tight that one could easily see his facial features. Ryan Teel then obtained water. which he began to pour through the opening in the sheet — causing much pain and terror in the restrained man. A complaint was filed in due course, and the administration was specifically warned if someone did not do something about Deputy Teel, someone was going to die.
So here we are, six months later. A series of reported abuses for which there was no accountability resulted in the beating death of a man booked on misdemeanor charges, for which there is still no accountability.
And like the Anthony Diotaiuto case, or the Sal Culosi case, the public officials who ought to have something to say have clammed up. No tranparency. No responsibility. From an editorial in Biloxi’s Sun Herald:
The vicious act was recorded by no fewer than five video cameras, and witnessed by other jail employees, medical personnel and inmates.
Yet a code of what amounts to official silence involving the U.S. Attorney, the local district attorney and the Sheriff of Harrison County continues to leave the people of South Mississippi in the dark about this case where justice delayed seems to spotlight the notion of justice denied.
The dual standard of other violent crimes continues to play out before our eyes. Recently a man was found shot to death in his car. Within 24 hours two men had been arrested, charged with murder and jailed for that crime.
This crime occurred without video cameras or employees of the Harrison County Sheriff’s office as witnesses, mind you.
Sheriff George H. Payne Jr. was able to disclose to the public facts that his investigators put forward about the shooting, including the theory that the victim and his alleged killers had fought before the shooting occurred.
Yet in the circle of secrecy about the death of Jessie Lee Williams, those three leaders remain quiet, assuring us only that the investigation continues.
How much investigation is necessary to conclude that a crime may have been committed? How many times must the video be viewed, how many times must the witnesses be interviewed or their words evaluated to determine whether murder most foul took place in the Harrison County jail?
Behind this veil of silence we are left to wonder especially why our own district attorney, Cono Caranna, is so muted, even shackled, it would appear, from performing his duties by the United States attorney?
Does the killing of a person in our jail not constitute the commission of a crime under the laws of Mississippi? If that is so, why in the name of sworn duty has the district attorney failed to either prosecute the crime or explain why there should be no prosecution?
The silence of Dunn Lampton, the U.S. attorney for Mississippi’s Southern District, is perhaps the most vexing. It reflects not only upon our justice system, but upon the state as a whole. It is impossible to ignore the fact that a black inmate may have died at the hands of a white jailer. In Mississippi this was once far too common, and while justice for all parties is a paramount value to be highly guarded, the matter of public confidence in our system is in specific jeopardy with this delay, delay, delay.
It is exceedingly frustrating, even unfathomable, that neither prosecutor has been able to discern whether a crime has been committed, and no one has been charged in this lengthy period, given the extensive photographic and eyewitness evidence known to exist.
This is the pattern, over and over, when it comes to police brutality, excessive force, and botched raid cases. The problem isn’t necessarily widespread police abuse — there are good cops and bad cops, just as is the case in any profession. The problem is the lack of accountability, and the decidedly different standards of justice applied to police as opposed to everyone else. The problem is that when the small percentage of bad cops act up, nobody takes them to task.
Prosecutors eager to push the boundaries of punishment when it comes to other crimes seem to require an extraordinary amount of evidence of wrongdoing before pushing forward with charges of any kind against a police officer. Public officials shut up. There’s a halt to information flow. All the while, the famlies of victims are left in the lurch. And public confidence in the system wanes.
As my colleague Tim Lynch has put it:
Some people may prefer a strict application of the law, across the board. Some may prefer a lenient application of the law, across the board. A case can be made for both. I also think a case can be made for strict application of the law as applied to the government, but a lenient application as applied to the people. But the least defensible position, it seems to me, is the one that dominates: Strict justice for the people and leniency for the government.
If prosecutors held civilians to the same standards they hold police officers, my guess is that there would be a lot fewer people in prison.