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$2 Million Confidential Settlement In CCA Prisoner’s 2004 Beating Death Revealed

$2 Million Confidential Settlement In CCA Prisoner's 2004 Beating Death Revealed

by Alex Friedmann

PLN has previously reported on the death of Estelle Richardson, a mentally ill prisoner who died at the CCA-operated Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility in Nashville, Tennessee on July 5, 2004.

Richardson was found unresponsive in a solitary confinement cell; the State Medical Examiner determined she had suffered four broken ribs, a damaged liver and a fatal skull fracture, and ruled her death a homicide. Four CCA guards were later indicted in connection with her death, but the charges were dropped on May 24, 2007 due to uncertainty about when the fatal injury had occurred.

Richardson's two minor children, through their conservator, filed a wrongful death suit against CCA in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. The case was settled confidentially in April 2006 and the record was sealed. [see: PLN, April 2005, p.14; Feb. 2006, p.1; May 2006, p.19].

Fast forward to February 22, 2008. As part of a contested federal judicial nomination for CCA general counsel Gustavus A. Puryear IV, two attorneys involved in the Richardson lawsuit, plaintiff?s lawyer David Randolph Smith and CCA counsel Joseph F. Wellborn III, filed a joint motion to unseal the transcript of the hearing where the court had approved the settlement. They advised the court that "The transcript does not contain terms of the minor settlement and will not violate the order of the Court that the settlement remain confidential." That representation was not entirely correct.

The unsealed transcript contained obvious, sufficient details to determine that a $2 million gross settlement was paid by CCA. During the settlement hearing, attorney Smith had revealed the amount of his fee ($192,000) and the percentage of that fee relative to the entire attorney fee (25%). The percentage of the entire attorney fee was also mentioned in the transcript (40%), as well as the amount paid to the children's conservator ($156,210). Simple math deduces the gross settlement award of $2 million.

Also, Smith had evidently failed to notify his client before joining in the motion to unseal the transcript. PLN Associate Editor Alex Friedmann filed bar complaints against both attorneys for misleading the court into revealing the amount of the confidential settlement paid to Estelle Richardson?s two minor children. While PLN strongly disfavors confidential settlements, in this case the conduct of the attorneys was improper and ethically questionable in having agreed to a secret settlement and then deciding to unseal it to advance the political career of CCA's general counsel.

The unsealed transcript was submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of Gus Puryear's nomination by another CCA attorney, James F. Sanders. PLN will report on Mr. Puryear's pending judicial nomination in greater depth in an upcoming issue. See: Unsealed transcript in Vilella v. CCA, USDC MD TN, Case No. 3:04-cv-0661. The transcript is available on PLN's website.

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Related legal case

Unsealed transcript in Vilella v. CCA