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Washington Pays $3 Million to Murdered Prisoner’s Family After Overriding Single-Cell Recommendation for Violent Cellmate

by Mark Wilson

On November 19, 2021, the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) agreed to pay $3 million to a murdered prisoner’s family for overriding recommendations to house his violent cellmate in a cell by himself. Together with another $3.25 million settlement in July 2021 [See: PLN, June 2022, p.20], DOC paid out in 2021 a sum many times the $1.4 million in legal settlements it paid the prior year, according to state risk-management data reported by the Seattle Times.

In September 2014, while awaiting trial in the Grant County Jail for shooting a man, James Leonard Boyd violently attacked his sleeping cellmate, dragging him from bed and choking him. Boyd was later convicted in the shooting and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison, transferred to DOC custody in early 2015.

Citing Boyd’s assaultive history, a DOC counselor and correctional program manager determined that he posed a threat to others and should be “single-celled.” Nevertheless, that recommendation was overruled, without explanation. About six months later, Boyd attacked his cellmate, nearly choking him to death. For that Boyd was found guilty of aggravated assault, in violation of WAC 137-25-030(1)(a). Yet his earlier single-cell recommendation was not reinstated.

In March 2019, Keenan Michael Thomas, a 27-year-old father of four minor children, began serving a 60-month sentence in DOC on a domestic violence conviction. With good time, he anticipated a 2022 release date. Thomas was attending college classes and awaiting transfer to minimum-security when he was assigned to the top bunk in Boyd’s Washington State Penitentiary cell.

Sometime after Boyd entered the cell at 8:34 p.m. on October 16, 2019, and before exiting alone at 5 a.m. the next day, he attacked Thomas as he slept, strangling him to death. “He was supposed to be there for a short period of time. And he served a life sentence,” observed Teresa Alvarado, Thomas’s mother.

Guards did not notice Thomas was dead in his bunk until after 5 p.m., despite hourly tier checks. Boyd was sitting on the toilet with his shirt over his nose, wringing his hands, guards reported. Thomas was tightly wrapped in a sheet with his neck at an unnatural angle in the top bunk, according to DOC and police reports. A blood-stained jacket was draped over him and other bloody linen and clothes were piled on the floor.

Thomas’s motionless body was rigid and cold, but guards and medics pulled him from the top bunk, attempted CPR and cut his throat to insert a breathing tube. This disturbance of the crime scene “frustrated” the medical examiner’s effort to conclusively establish the cause of death, according to investigation records.

It also complicated the decision about whether to prosecute Boyd, who refused to speak with investigators. Although a detective concluded that there was sufficient evidence to charge Boyd with second-degree murder in 2020, Walla Walla County prosecutor James Nagle said the case was still under review in September 2021, and no charges had been filed as of May 4, 2022.

Thomas’s estate filed a wrongful death suit in state court on September 16, 2020. Despite the uncertainty about Boyd’s criminal liability, the state forfeited the right to dispute his culpability in the civil suit by missing a key filing deadline.

The case then proceeded to trial in November 2021. But mid-way through proceedings, Defendants settled, following damaging testimony of the two DOC employees whose single-cell recommendations were overridden without explanation.

“Undoubtedly, the state’s decisionmakers were watching the course of trial,” said attorney Edwin Budge, who represented Plaintiffs, citing the “very impactful” testimony of the two DOC employees. “I think that the DOC’s negligence was obvious to nearly everyone in the courtroom. The citizens of our state expect much more, and I hope that the DOC will use this as an opportunity to look within itself and take the steps that are necessary to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

That may be asking a bit too much, as the state has not admitted liability in the case, according to the settlement agreement. A DOC spokesperson did not respond to questions about whether the case will change how DOC makes single-cell decision.

“Our deepest sympathies are with the Keenan Thomas family for the pain they suffer,” claimed DOC Secretary Cheryl Strange. “We know a settlement can never truly compensate for the pain of losing a family member. We sincerely hope this resolution brings some solace to the Thomas family in the years to come.”

Under the terms of the settlement, the parties each agreed to bear their own costs and attorney’s fees. Budge, plaintiff’s counsel, is with the Seattle firm of Budge & Heipt PLLC. See: Est. of Thomas v. Washington, Wash. Super. (King Cty.), Case No. 20-2-13930-1.  

Additional source: Seattle Times

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Related legal case

Est. of Thomas v. Washington, Wash. Super. (King Cty.)