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$725,000 Settlement Reached in North Carolina Prisoner’s Suicide at Troubled Jail

by Keith Sanders

On January 18, 2019, Melissa Middleton Rice committed suicide while in custody at the Jackson County Detention Center (JCDC) in Sylva, North Carolina. As she sat in the jail’s booking room, Rice hanged herself with a telephone cord. She was found unresponsive and without a pulse just three hours after entering JCDC.

Earlier that same day she was arrested, Rice had attempted to set herself on fire in the back of the police car with a cigarette lighter and one-dollar bill. Before that, according to public records, her ex-husband reported that Rice threatened suicide, leading Magistrate Judge Albert Reagan to issue a restraining order around 4 p.m. that afternoon. After receiving the order, however, arresting Deputy Ridge Parris left Rice unattended.

With her death, three prisoners have now hanged themselves and died at JCDC in five years. On November 21, 2014, it was Charles “Chuckie” Moose, 36. On March 13, 2015, it was Steve Allen Ross, Jr., 38. Those two suicides prompted North Carolina jail inspectors to launch an investigation in which they found jail staff had violated state detention regulations.

After Ross’ suicide, Sheriff Chip Hall established new policies and procedures, but they didn’t save Rice. Although jail officials checked on the 49-year-old twice within an hour, as required by state law, a lawsuit filed on her behalf by her son and estate administrator, Matthew Dillard, alleged that Rice should have been checked four times hourly per the Sheriff’s new jail policy for prisoners who are suicidal, mentally ill, intoxicated or violent.

Thomas F. Ramer, an attorney with Hanly & Ramer LLLP in Asheville who represented Dillard in the lawsuit, said that Rice’s death could have been prevented if the Sheriff had simply “enforced his own newly enacted policies and procedures.”

In February 2018, Dillard’s wrongful death suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983 was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina with 12 named defendants, including Sheriff Hall, ten of his deputies, and his insurer, Western Surety Company.

The Court dismissed with prejudice two deputies and Western Surety. Then, prior to trial Chief U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger granted the parties’ request for a continuance to pursue mediation on August 16, 2021.

Eventually, a settlement was reached on October 14, 2021, with Rice’s estate receiving a total of $725,000 in damages. Most of that amount, $645,000 was awarded to Plaintiffs and their attorneys. The other $80,000 will be paid to Metlife Assignment Company to provide periodic payments to Jerred Madison Rice and Matthew Dillard.

Separately, Sheriff Hall’s bonding company also agreed to pay Plaintiffs $15,000.

After reaching the settlement, the parties agreed to dismiss the suit on November 1, 2021. See: Dillard v. Hall, USDC (W.D. N.C.), Case No. 1:20-cv-00057.  

Additional source: Smoky Mountain News

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