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Rhode Island: Life-sentenced Prisoner is “Civilly Dead,” Cannot Pursue Tort Claim

by Christopher Zoukis

The Rhode Island Supreme Court, citing an antiquated law that declares life-sentenced state prisoners legally “dead in all respects,” affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of a prisoner’s negligence claim for damages suffered when he was attacked by another prisoner.

Dana Gallop was convicted of first-degree murder and multiple other crimes stemming from the shooting death of Anthony Parrish in December 2008. He received two life sentences plus 45 years.

Prior to Gallop’s conviction, while he was being held as a pretrial detainee at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI), he was attacked by fellow detainee Ian Rosado in April 2010. According to a negligence suit later filed by Gallop, jail guard Matthew Galligan knew of Rosado’s plans and abandoned his post for 18 minutes so the attack would not be witnessed or interrupted. Gallop was left with lacerations and permanent scarring to his face.

The day before the trial in Gallop’s lawsuit, the superior court judge sua sponte raised the issue of Rhode Island’s “civil death” statute, G.L. 1956 § 13-6-1, and the defendants moved to dismiss on those grounds. The court granted the motion and Gallop appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, which upheld the dismissal.

In its May 8, 2018 ruling, the state’s high court analyzed the concept of civil death. According to the Court, “[t]he ancient Greeks were among the first to divest criminals of their civil rights, ‘including the right to appear in court, vote, make speeches, attend assemblies, and serve in the army.’” Rhode Island’s civil death statute was enacted in 1909. New York, the Virgin Islands and Rhode Island are the only U.S. jurisdictions that still retain civil death for prisoners serving life sentences.

Despite the law being “moronic,” as described by Gallop’s attorney, Ronald Resmini, the Supreme Court found the statutory language plain and unambiguous. The statute states that “[e]very person imprisoned in the adult correctional institutions for life shall, with respect to all rights of property, to the bond of matrimony, and to all civil rights and relations of any nature whatsoever, be deemed to be dead in all respects, as if his or her natural death had taken place at the time of conviction.” In the Court’s view, the legal analysis was simple: by law, Gallop was considered dead. And dead people can’t file lawsuits.

Yet Gallop, who is still very much alive in the conventional sense, may still have an opportunity to pursue his case. After the superior court introduced the civil death issue into the proceedings, he moved to amend his complaint to add constitutional claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The superior court refused to rule on the motion. The Supreme Court held that constituted error; the lower court should have addressed the motion and supporting arguments. Ultimately, Gallop’s claim may survive as a civil rights action, though that remains to be seen on remand and the Supreme Court’s commentary in that regard was not optimistic. See: Gallop v. Adult Correctional Institutions, 182 A.3d 1137 (R.I. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Gallop v. Adult Correctional Institutions