Cleveland County officials agreed to pay $ 347,500 to the family of an inmate who was beaten and suffocated two years ago in a holding cell jailers couldn’t see.
Jeffery Todd Dunn, 37, died on April 1, 2019, after a confrontation with another inmate in cell. This man, Kenneth Eric Darby, is accused of Dunn’s murder.
A state Department of Health and Human Services investigation found that jailers had checked Dunn and Darby, 41, only once in the two hours before Dunn was found. State regulations require jailers to check inmates at least twice an hour.
Dunn’s mother filed a lawsuit in February, accusing the jailers of knowing the two were violent and unstable, but ignored them after placing them in a cell with a window so severely cracked it blocked their view. The defendants included Cleveland County, Sheriff Alan Norman and several current and former employees who were working when Dunn died.
Jeffrey Schwartz, a national prison security expert, told News & Observer in February that if the claims in the trial were true, they suggested that jailers “kind of set up a gladiatorial school and then walk away from it.” “.
Cleveland County Director Brian Epley and Deputy County Attorney Martha Thompson confirmed the settlement and the amount owed.. This does not force Norman or current and former employees to admit responsibility, they said.
“First and foremost, the whole situation is incredibly miserable,” Epley said. “No one wants to be in a situation where we are talking about someone who has lost their life, and obviously that is what happened.”
Norman could not be reached by email or phone. Luke Largess, a Charlotte lawyer representing Dunn’s mother Freida Winters, said they had agreed not to discuss the case as part of its settlement.
Epley and Thompson said they will not release the settlement agreement until it is recorded in the minutes of the next County Commissioners Council meeting on October 19. Commissioners approved it behind closed doors several weeks ago, they said.
Approval of the meeting minutes is not required to release a lawsuit settlement, which is a public record under state law, said Brooks Fuller, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at the University of Elon.
“If there is a signed and executed settlement agreement, it is a public record and must be produced,” he said.
The settlement is the second in less than three years in which Cleveland County has paid more than $ 300,000 to resolve a lawsuit alleging responsibility for the death of an inmate. In 2019, the county paid $ 303,000 to the family of Archie McNeilly Jr., 40, who died of kidney failure in 2015.
A DHHS investigation into his death at one point revealed that he had not been checked by prison staff for more than two hours. Largess had also represented his family.
The amount of money the county has contributed should trigger more corrective action for the jail, said Susan Pollitt, senior disability rights lawyer in North Carolina. The association helps people with mental and physical disabilities; prisons often have a significant number of inmates with mental illness.
“You hope they will have the foresight to spend resources to make their prison safer in the future,” she said.
In response to state investigators, Sheriff Norman’s office said the prison is implementing a new system to track inmate checks by detention officers.
Dunn was among 46 North Carolina inmates in 2019 who died in prisons or in a hospital after becoming ill or injured behind bars. This was a record number since the state began tracking these deaths in the 1990s.
The number of such deaths was even higher last year, with at least 49 inmate deaths recorded.
Inmate deaths have tended to increase for several years. State lawmakers have held hearings on the growing toll, but have not passed significant reforms. House Speaker Tim Moore, who is also a Cleveland County attorney, did not respond to questions emailed by a reporter about Dunn’s death.
Deaths in prison often lead to lawsuits that result in settlement payments to inmate families. These agreements sometimes include required changes in the management of prisons. This was the case after a 17-year-old hanged herself in County Durham Jail in 2017.
The settlement, which paid his family $ 650,000, forced the prison to eliminate suicide risks by the end of 2019 and stop housing inmates under the age of 18 with adults.