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Prisoner Education Guide

Mississippi: Former Jailer Acquitted of Criminal Charges in Prisoner’s Death

by Kevin Bliss

Victor Smith was found not guilty of aggravated assault and conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, stemming from an incident when he was employed as a jailer with the Adams County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) in Mississippi. He is also being sued by the family of Joseph “Joey” Sturdivant in connection with Sturdivant’s hanging death.

Smith was passing out lunch trays on March 17, 2016 with the assistance of jail trustees Jerome Harris and Kelcey Watson, without a second guard present as required by ACSO protocol. He found that he was a tray short and left to retrieve one without locking the cell doors. When he returned he saw Harris in the cell with Sturdivant, but testified there did not appear to be any type of altercation at that time.

Later, surveillance video footage showed Harris in his cell giving a thumbs-up sign to someone outside his door. Smith testified that was him; he was concerned because Harris was prone to asthma attacks, and was checking on him. Harris was simply letting Smith know that he was OK, he said.

At about 1 p.m., a prisoner walked past Sturdivant’s cell and saw him hanging from a noose made from a sheet. The prisoner immediately notified jail staff, and Sturdivant was taken down. A preliminary autopsy ruled his death a suicide.

Smith was terminated; after the incident was investigated, he, Harris and Watson were charged with aggravated assault and conspiracy to commit aggravated assault in connection with Sturdivant’s death.

In preliminary hearings, Dr. Mark LeVaughn testified that some of the injuries Sturdivant sustained were distinct from those of the hanging. His testimony was shielded from the jury to avoid having Sturdivant’s death prejudice the jurors in the aggravated assault case.

Video surveillance played a predominant role at trial, though the footage did not show Sturdivant being assaulted. Dr. LeVaughn opined that injuries sustained by Sturdivant indicated he had been choked. Then-jailer Drucilla Rounds testified about an earlier fight, suggesting Sturdivant’s injuries could have stemmed from that incident.

Smith was the only witness for the defense. He said his sole inappropriate action was leaving the cell doors unlocked as he went to get another meal tray. He stated he had 14 years of experience at the jail, and that was definitely an error in judgment.

During closing arguments, prosecutors argued the video of Harris giving a thumbs-up to Smith indicated a conspiracy; that a blunder by such an experienced officer was unlikely; and that the marks around Sturdivant’s neck were evidence of an assault.

The defense countered that Smith did not have a motive – he had no connection with Harris or Watson, or any compelling reason to conspire with them. The origin of Sturdivant’s injuries were inconclusive and the video cameras did not show enough to convict Smith. The jury took about 45 minutes to return an acquittal on August 30, 2017.

Sturdivant’s family filed suit against Adams County and the Sheriff’s Office, as well as Smith and two other jail employees. Their complaint alleged that all the defendants failed to protect Sturdivant, violating his rights under the Eighth Amendment, and that Smith had been involved in similar incidents in the past.

The family members, represented by lawyers Robert Lenoir and Ronald Whittington, are seeking damages as well as attorney fees and costs. The case remains pending. See: Sturdivant v. Adams County, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 5:17-cv-00020-KS-MTP. 

Additional sources: www.natchezdemocrat.com, Washington Times

 

Related legal case

Sturdivant v. Adams County


 

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