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Fifth Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Case Involving Texas Jail Prisoner’s Suicide

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reluctantly affirmed a lower court's dismissal of a Texas jail suicide case.

In April 2004, 23-year old Jamie Whitt was arrested on three misdemeanor charges and lodged in the Stephens County Jail. Seven hours later the 290-pound, six foot tall Whitt was found dead, hanging from a 37 inch belt in his cell.

"What had happened during those seven hours remains a disquieting mystery," acknowledged the Fifth Circuit.

Guard James Kyle Buse, Jr., booked Whitt into the jail at 2 p.m., and inventoried his property and clothing. No belt was listed on the inventory.

Whitt denied suicidal thoughts or previous attempts, according to a mental health questionnaire. He did admit that he recently experienced the death of a loved one. "Contrary to protocol, Buse did not report that answer to supervisors, and he assigned Whitt to a general holding cell."

Between 2 p.m. and 4:15 p.m., guards Freda Lewing and Johnny Ponce observed Whitt, but noted nothing unusual. "Sometime between 5:00 p.m., and 7:00 p.m.," however, detainee Dedra Burns "heard noises from Whitt's area of the jail, particularly something about 'Rose,' the name of Whitt's deceased mother.” She also recalled hearing, “'Leave me alone. Stop. Leave me alone,” as well as “a bunch of sounds like they was slamming the mats around and noises like grunting.” Detainee Charles Oliver also "heard a bang in (Whitt's) cell" around 6 p.m.

"A jail surveillance camera in the hallway outside Whitt's cell should have recorded what had happened in the vicinity of the cell," according to the Fifth Circuit. "But curiously, and more than a little troubling, the only available copy of the surveillance recording contains several 'green out' periods during which the counter progresses but the screen displays solid green or solid white. The crucial moments cannot be seen on the tape."

At about 7 p.m., Ponce discovered Whitt hanging from a pipe in his cell. Two trustees cut Whitt down but nobody bothered to check for a pulse or attempted to resuscitate him.

Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) Jody Jenkins and Bryson Kanady responded to the jail but found no signs of life. Sheriff James Reeves "executed on behalf of Whitt a 'refusal of service' form releasing the EMTs of further responsibility."

"A justice of the peace pronounced Whitt dead" and a medical examiner "determined that the cause of death was 'hanging… consistent with suicide' and testified that Whitt's body did not show signs of bruising or other such injuries." Yet funeral home photos show bruising.

In February 2006, Whitt's father, Jimmy Whitt brought federal suit against Stephens County, Reeves, and five unidentified guards and EMTs.

The district court granted qualified immunity to Reeves and the Doe defendants on Whitt's suicide-liability claim, but denied summary judgment to the county on that claim. It also denied qualified immunity to the individual defendants on Whitt's harassment claim.

The district court then denied leave to amend the complaint to identify the Doe defendants and granted summary judgment to those defendants.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed both decisions. It found that it "need not consider whether the court abused its discretion in denying leave to amend," because it agreed "that the statute of limitations rendered amendment of the complaint futile."

The Court also affirmed summary judgment to Sheriff Reeves because there was no evidence that he was personally involved in the violations or that he acted with deliberate indifference.

"Although a county could be held liable for failure to adopt adequate policies and procedures or to train employees in those procedures." the Court held that "no jury could conclude that Whitt posed an obvious risk of suicide such that the county acted with deliberate indifference."

Whitt's responses to the mental health screening, did not allow a jury to reasonably "conclude that Whitt's risk of suicide was sufficiently 'obvious,' 'known,' demonstrable,' or 'manifest' to establish a constitutional violation."

Finally, the Court rejected Whitt's claim that "he is entitled to a spoliation inference, because ... defendants destroyed evidence in bad faith by causing the 'green outs' on the prison surveillance camera."

"It is not without discomfort that we affirm the summary judgment, because the facts now in the record are suspicious." the Fifth Circuit admitted. "Although there remains considerable mystery about what may have happened to Whitt at the hands of his jailers, they were not properly named as defendants within the requisite statutory time period, and the claims against Reeves and the county do not suffice in their stead." See: Whitt v. Stephens County, 529 F.3d 278 (5th Cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

Whitt v. Stephens County