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$16 Million Federal Jury Award in Texas Jail Beating Suit

by Matt Clarke

On January 12, 2011, a federal jury in Beaumont, Texas found in favor of a former Jefferson County prisoner who was beaten by jail employees during the intake process. The jury awarded over $16 million in damages.

Joseph Christopher Roberts was arrested in April 2007 for making an illegal U-turn and having outstanding traffic warrants. He was transported to the Jefferson County jail without incident. However, as Roberts was being processed into the facility, jail officer Rodney George Cole II punched him in the face several times and slammed his head into the booking counter, apparently without provocation. The attack was captured on the jail’s video system and caused injuries severe enough to require stitches. It was witnessed by several other jail employees, who neither intervened nor seemed disturbed by the incident.

Roberts was placed in a holding cell and received no medical attention despite bleeding profusely from the mouth. Later, he was removed from the cell in handcuffs to be photographed and fingerprinted. During that process, unaware of the jail’s video cameras, Roberts spat blood onto the booking forms to create evidence that he had been injured and was bleeding.

Seeing this, jail officer Johnny Lynn Vickery, Jr. threw Roberts, who was still handcuffed, against a wall. Vickery then took the bloody document and ground it into Roberts’ hair. Again, several employees witnessed the assault, which was captured on the jail’s video system, but failed to intervene. Instead, they “high-fived” each other in apparent celebration of the incident. [See: PLN, Oct. 2009, p.1].

Roberts filed a civil rights suit in U.S. District Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the assaults constituted excessive force and, combined with the failure to provide medical attention, violated his Fourth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and constituted a state tort. He also alleged that Jefferson County had a policy and procedure of using excessive force and had failed to adequately train and supervise its jail employees.

Criminal charges were filed against Cole and Vickery, who both resigned after they were convicted of misdemeanor official oppression in 2008. Vickery was ordered to pay a $4,000 fine, while Cole received a year on probation and a $4,000 fine.

The court dismissed Jefferson County from Roberts’ lawsuit, finding that he had failed to prove the policy and practice issues or failure to adequately train and supervise claims. When the case went to trial, Cole represented himself and refused to testify or otherwise explain why he had attacked Roberts.

The jury issued a verdict against Cole and Vickery after deliberating for only six hours. Roberts was awarded $567.91 against Cole for physical injury and medical treatment. The other damages, awarded against both Cole and Vickery, included $101.25 each for lost earnings, $25,000 each for physical and emotional pain and mental anguish, and $8 million each in punitive damages. The total award was $16,050,770.41.

Following the verdict, Roberts stated, “What’s ironic is I have yet to receive an apology from either one [of the guards].” He added, “my goal is to ensure that no one else has to suffer the same pain and humiliation that I went through.”

Roberts was represented by Houston attorney Robert Luke, who has since appealed the dismissal of Jefferson County from the suit. Without Jefferson County as a defendant in the case, it is questionable whether Roberts will be able to collect the bulk of the jury award. See: Roberts v. Cole, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Tex.), Case No. 1:08-cv-00406-MAC.

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Related legal case

Roberts v. Cole