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Tennessee Officials Pay $450,000 to Settle Lawsuit in Detainee's Murder by Guards

Tennessee Officials Pay $450,000 to Settle Lawsuit
in Detainee's Murder by Guards

by David M. Reutter

Wilson County and City of Lebanon, Tennessee, jail officials agreed to pay the widow of Walter Steven Kuntz $450,000 to settle a lawsuit that charged jail guards beat him to death. Following a traffic accident in January 2003, Kuntz was arrested and taken to the Wilson County Jail. Several hours later, he was found in a coma and later died at a local hospital. State Medical Examiner Bruce Levy ruled Kuntz's death a homicide, saying Kuntz died of blunt force trauma to the head and torso.

Kuntz's widow, Oletta Lynn Kuntz, filed an $80 million civil rights suit against the county and city. In September 2003, the city and county settled the suit. In early November 2003, Lebanon City officials announced they had settled with Oletta for $50,000. That information was released only after The Tennessean and The Lebanon Democrat filed suit under Tennessee's Public Records Act to have the settlement's details disclosed.

County officials, however, cited a confidentiality agreement between the parties and a current federal and state investigation into Kuntz's death to withhold the settlement's details. The County went so far as to sue in federal court to block release of the settlement.

Kuntz's death spurned investigations into brutality at the jail. So far, two guards have pled guilty to federal charges. In November 2003, one pled guilty to civil rights violations for beating another prisoner; the other guard pled guilty to lying to FBI agents about the beating of a third prisoner.

In mid-November 2003, Wilson County officials capitulated and released the details of the Kuntz settlement to resolve the public records lawsuit. The details reveal a $400,000 settlement from the county to Oletta in Kuntz's death. The settlement's amount, however, is apparently failing to have a deterrent effect upon law enforcement officials. After details of the settlement were made public, Wilson County Sheriff, Terry Ashe said, "The first thing that hits me is, it's a long ways from $80 million. The second thing is, it doesn't hold any individual liable. I don't know what to read into it because I wasn't part of the negotiations. It's the insurance company's settlement."

Wilson County Mayor Robert Dedman said the settlement "seems like a whole lot." Oletta Kuntz's attorney, Blair Durham, disagreed. "No amount of money is ever enough to compensate for someone's life," Durham said. He also said the disparity in settlements between the County and City did not necessarily imply a difference in culpability. "Our investigation made it appear the case was easier to prove against the Sheriff's deputies than the Lebanon police officers," said Durham. "We honestly feel both organizations beat the (heck) out of Steven."

Source: The Tennessean

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