Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

California Pays $3.5 Million to Settle Suit Over State Prisoner’s Murder

by Ashleigh N. Dye

On September 24, 2022, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) signed a settlement agreement providing $3.5 million to the heirs of Shaylene Graves, a state prisoner found hanged in her cell at the California Institute for Women (CIW) in Chino in June 2016.

At first, CDCR said Graves died by suicide. But further investigation and an autopsy revealed the 27-year-old mother had been beaten and smothered to death before her body was strung up.

For weeks, Graves had requested a bed change to get away from her cellmate, Johney Davis, with whom Graves was once romantically involved. Now Davis was threatening to kill her, Graves said. Other prisoners heard the threats, which were also recorded during a phone call.

On May 29, 2016, Graves asked Sgt. Brown to move her because of Davis’ death threats. He denied her request. That same evening, Graves spoke to Lt. Whitmore and repeated her request, but it was again denied.

On May 31, 2016, the night before her body was found, Graves told guards she did not want to lock down with her cellmate because of Davis’ continued threats to kill her. Guards responded that Graves could either lock down or go to solitary confinement. Since that could negatively affect her upcoming release date, Graves chose to stay in the cell.

According to court records, other prisoners reported hearing the sounds of a fight that night. Eventually, there was silence. When it was broken, it was Davis who called from the cell: “[S]he isn’t breathing.” Graves was then found and pronounced dead at 3:15 a.m. on June 1, 2016.

With the aid of attorneys from the Bohm Law Group in Sacramento and V. James DeSimone Law in Marina Del Ray, Graves’ mother, Sheri, along with guardian ad litem for her minor son, A.C.H., filed suit in federal court for the Central District of California in May 2017. They accused CDCR and its staff of deliberate indifference to Graves’ serious risk of harm, in violation of her civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as state law violations.

The case proceeded through numerous motions to dismiss by Defendants, which the Court granted with leave to amend. Plaintiffs filed their eighth amended complaint on April 6, 2021. Not quite six months later, on October 5, 2021, the parties notified the Court that they had reached a settlement.

Under its terms, each party bore its own attorney fees and costs. An annuity was set up for Graves’ son, who was eight-years-old by then. But the agreement also included something else: A chance for Sheri Graves to speak directly to CDCR officials.

On October 6, 2022, she told them about the violence her daughter suffered from Davis and how no prison official would intervene; about the delay before guards showed up at the cell after other prisoners heard the fighting stop — giving Davis time to stage the scene to look like a suicide; and about how badly she was stonewalled after her daughter’s death, never finding out that it wasn’t a suicide until her attorneys filed suit.

A 2017 state auditor’s report blamed “domestic violence in interpersonal relationships between female inmates” for high suicide rates at CIW and other lockups for women. Former Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a law in 2018 requiring CDCR to make annual reports on its progress toward addressing the problem. But according to Jim Desimone, one of the family’s attorneys, the lack of any progress was the reason “why we’re doing the presentation, why this non-monetary relief was so important.”

“They studied the problem, they identified the problem, but then they didn’t do anything about the problem,” he said. See: Graves v. Cal. Dep’t of Corr. & Rehab., USDC (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 5:17-cv-01086. 

Additional sources: Davis Vanguard, Witness LA

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login