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San Diego County Targets Reporter Who Exposed Sky-High Jail Death Rate

by Dale Chappell

When the widow of a prisoner who committed suicide at a San Diego County jail filed suit claiming staff had been made aware of the jail’s high death rate due to a reporter’s local news reports, the county went after the journalist instead of trying to address the problem.

Although Los Angeles County’s jail population is three times larger than San Diego’s, the death rate in San Diego jails is higher. Much higher. Between 2007 and 2012, 60 prisoners died in San Diego County’s jail system – including 16 suicides. In fact, none of the 10 largest jails in the state had a higher death rate.

The county has been hit with multiple lawsuits over prisoner deaths and paid out millions of dollars in two lawsuits in 2017. The county was well aware it had a problem with high death rates in its jail system.

When former U.S. Marine Kristopher Nesmith’s widow sued in 2017 over her husband’s death by suicide at a San Diego jail, part of the evidence cited in the lawsuit was a San Diego CityBeat article titled “60 Dead Inmates” by Kelly Davis, an award-winning journalist who exposed the problem of the high death rates. Nesmith’s widow said Davis’ report put the county on notice of a “pattern of deliberate indifference” to prisoner suicides.

San Diego officials then targeted Davis in November 2017 – subpoenaing her to divulge all the information and sources she used for her story, including confidential discussions with attorneys about the wrongful death lawsuits, then filing a motion to compel. It was an effort by the county to discredit Davis’ reporting and shut her up. But she fought back.

Free press advocates lauded the law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter and Hampton LLP for representing Davis pro bono against the county’s “retaliatory tactics.” They noted that while most states have shield laws to protect journalists, Nesmith’s case was in federal court and there is no federal shield law.

“The County’s expensive legal attempt to subpoena notes, require testimony and reveal confidential sources is unconscion­able,” the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) said in a statement. “We demand a public pledge from the County to refrain from such retaliatory tactics against journalists who seek to hold government accountable on behalf of the citizens government should serve.”

The SPJ added, “This case underscores the need for a federal shield law to protect journalists from being compelled to release confidential information. Either through legislation or case law, 48 states and the District of Columbia recognize the need for these protections and it is time for Congress to do the same.”

The district court in Nesmith’s lawsuit ruled against the county on February 2, 2018, saying Davis did not have to testify about her sources.

Rather than attack the messenger, perhaps San Diego County officials should have focused on why their jail system has such high death rates and why so many prisoners commit suicide. The lawsuit over Nesmith’s death remains pending. See: Nesmith v. County of San Diego, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:15-cv-00629-JLS-AGS. 


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Related legal case

Nesmith v. County of San Diego