Breaking News! Tennessee: New Trial Ordered in Prisoner’s Wrongful Death Case
by Steve Horn
On April 5, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that a lawsuit over the death of 33-year-old Charles “Jason” Toll – a prisoner who died in 2010 after being forcibly removed from his solitary confinement cell at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution (RMSI) in Nashville, Tennessee – should be remanded for another trial.
The Court of Appeals concluded that a February 2011 resignation letter written by William Amonette, an RMSI guard who had participated in the cell extraction involving Toll, should have been disclosed during the discovery process in the suit. Amonette’s resignation letter, first reported by The New York Times in July 2014, centered around his belief that his concerns about the handling of Toll’s case were brushed aside by upper-level prison brass.
Amonette further wrote in his letter that he felt he did not receive the proper number of training hours needed to carry out cell extractions, and that he was asked to lie on a document saying he had completed the proper training.
“This is falsification of training records,” he wrote. “With the extenuating allegations surrounding proper officer training, I felt it necessary to make you aware of the situation. To put this simply, I cannot work somewhere where asking questions or trying to do what is right is punished.”
That letter would become a focal point of the court proceedings in August 2014, when the legal team representing Toll’s mother – Jane Luna, who brought the case on behalf of her son’s estate – filed a motion with the U.S. District Court arguing that the release of Amonette’s resignation letter by The New York Times served as new evidence supporting a re-trial.
A federal jury had ruled for the defendants at an initial trial in August 2013, finding they were not liable for Toll’s death. However, Amonette’s letter had not been presented during that trial because the defendants had failed to provide a copy to Luna’s attorneys.
In 2015, U.S. District Court Judge John T. Nixon agreed with the argument advanced by Luna’s legal team, holding that “the resignation letter is material, controlling and clearly would have produced a different result if presented before the original judgment.” Thus, he ruled, the case should be reheard.
The litigation was subsequently assigned to Judge Aleta Trauger, who held in a May 2017 summary judgment order that there was insufficient evidence to justify a re-trial. Luna appealed and the Sixth Circuit heard arguments in the case several months later.
The appellate court noted that Judge Nixon had found Amonette’s letter was “material to the credibility of the defense witnesses and substantially material to the presentation of evidence in [Luna’s] case,” because “the outcome of this trial in 2013 would, more likely than not, have been affected by the introduction and use of William Amonette’s resignation letter.”
“The addition of the Amonette letter provides even more disputed material facts regarding Luna’s claims,” the Court of Appeals added. “Therefore, we reverse the third district court’s order granting summary judgment to Defendants and remand the case to the third district court to conduct a new trial regarding both of Luna’s claims.”
Fatal Cell Extraction
Charles Toll – who suffered from diabetes, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and had previously attempted suicide – died following the cell extraction at RMSI in August 2010. A cell extraction is a procedure in which prisoners are forcibly removed from their cells by a team of guards, often with the use of pepper spray and Tasers.
While being carried by guards face-down to an outdoor recreation area for allegedly splashing a fluid on another guard, Toll became unresponsive and was declared dead after being taken to a hospital. The fatal cell extraction was captured on video.
Before dying from what the Davidson County Medical Examiner later concluded was a “homicide due to mechanical asphyxia and suffocation during physical restraint,” Toll told the guards a dozen times, “I can’t breathe.” He had been held in solitary confinement at RMSI in spite of his mental illness; both medical and criminal justice experts widely agree that putting people with mental health problems in segregation is inappropriate and harmful.
No Criminal or Disciplinary Charges
At the time of his death, Toll had been held in solitary confinement for seven months, the Nashville Scene reported in March 2017. He reportedly had been raped twice while incarcerated and had attempted suicide by swallowing 97 Tylenol pills.
In 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment concluded that individuals with mental illnesses should not be placed in solitary confinement, and that the use of segregation in excess of 15 days constituted a form of torture.
No criminal or disciplinary charges have been brought against RMSI employees involved in the events culminating in Toll’s death. The New York Times reported in its 2014 story that an internal investigation performed by the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) concluded that Toll’s death was “in no way caused by the actions of staff.”
As internal affairs investigations are exempt from Tennessee’s public records law, the TDOC’s investigative report has not been publicly released. Following remand from the Sixth Circuit, the wrongful death suit brought by Toll’s mother will be scheduled for another trial.
Sources: The New York Times, www.nashvilletnlaw.com, Nashville Scene, www.un.org