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Fatal Tasering at North Carolina Jail Results in $350,000 Settlement, Investigation

Federal authorities are eyeing North Carolina’s Harnett County Sheriff’s Office for civil rights violations. Their attention was drawn to the Harnett County Jail (HCJ) after a video showed guards Tasering a pre-trial detainee three times and leaving him to die in a padded cell. While that incident was being investigated, another detainee was pepper-sprayed by guards without good cause.

Brandon Jolvon Bethea, 24, was mentally ill and had been in and out of prison for drugs, assault and theft. He was arrested in January 2011 for rape and robbery. While in a court holding cell on March 15, 2011, Bethea flooded the toilet and guards placed him in handcuffs and shackles.

Once back at HCJ, Bethea’s handcuffs were removed after he was put in a padded cell, and he had a verbal confrontation with jail staff. Sgt. John V. Clark entered the cell with a Taser behind his back as Bethea continued speaking to guard Robert L. Kimbrough, Jr. The entire incident was caught on video.

As Clark continued concealing the Taser, he contended that Bethea exhibited an intent to assault Kimbrough. Then, without warning, “Clark produced the Taser he had hidden behind his back” and said, “you can’t threaten an officer.” Bethea backed away at the sight of the Taser; he was still in leg shackles.

When Bethea was 10 to 12 feet away, Clark deployed the Taser probes into Bethea’s body; he unleashed another 4-second electric burst only 10 seconds after the first jolt. A third 4-second burst was deployed 30 seconds later.

The guards then left the cell and no one checked on Bethea’s immobile body until 20 minutes later. By then it was too late. Efforts to revive Bethea were ineffective; a medical examiner ruled his death was due to “complications of conducted energy device application.”

The guards and a detective wrote in their reports that the force was used “in an attempt to gain control of Bethea and restrain him.” Despite the video showing otherwise, no charges, criminal or administrative, were brought against any of the guards.

Bethea’s family sued, and within nine months of the filing, without extensive discovery, the case settled. The $350,000 settlement required confidentiality and prohibited the family from discussing the lawsuit. If asked, they were to say only that “the matter has been resolved.” See: Johnson v. Clark, U.S.D.C. (E.D. NC), Case No. 5:12-cv-00707-F.

As federal investigators were looking into Bethea’s death, guards at HCJ pepper-sprayed detainee Devontay D. Myles in August 2016. According to a report filed by jail Sgt. Damel Selvy, “[Myles] started kicking on the door, making it difficult to conduct normal business in the booking desk.”

“I’m not going to lie,” Myles said. “I was constantly knocking on the door,” in an attempt to assure he received his psychotropic medication. Selvy, Cpl. Peter Cipriano and Cpl. Randy Taylor went to the cell. Upon opening the door, Selvy immediately hit Myles with two blasts of pepper spray and “use[d] a hammer fist to his back to gain compliance.” Myles said the guards did not let him wash off the pepper spray for around half an hour.

Cipriano was fired on August 25, 2016, while Selvy was placed on administrative leave and resigned within a week. Myles was transferred to a state prison to await trial; his attorney was reportedly trying to obtain a copy of the video of the incident. Myles filed a pro se lawsuit against HCJ in October 2016, but voluntarily dismissed the case the following month.

Meanwhile, according to a December 27, 2016 news report, an investigation by federal officials – which also includes two fatal shootings by sheriff’s deputies – remains ongoing. Harnett County officials retained Raleigh attorney Dan Boyce to assist with their response to the investigation.

“We’re asking him to actually help with the whole thing – working with the feds,” said County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jim Burgin. “He’ll also help us look through and make sure we’re doing everything right. Our goal is to make sure people have confidence in the sheriff, the sheriff’s department and the county.” 

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