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After Federal Judge Censors Lawyer’s Tweets About CoreCivic, Company Settles Suit Over Tennessee Prisoner’s Murder by Cellmate

by Harold Hempstead

On July 15, 2022, in a case accusing private prison giant CoreCivic of a Tennessee prisoner’s wrongful death, a federal magistrate judge issued a gag order restricting public comments on the case made by Plaintiff’s attorney.

The suit was brought by Marie Newby in federal court for the Middle District of Tennessee, accusing CoreCivic of violating the civil rights of her son, prisoner Terry Deshawn Childress, 37, by failing to protect him from a fatal attack by his cellmate in February 2021. The murder happened at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center (TTCC), which CoreCivic operates for the state Department of Corrections (DOC). Tymothy Blaze Willis, 23, was indicted for the killing in June 2021.

Tweets by Newby’s lawyer, Daniel Horwitz, led to the dust-up, which nearly overshadowed a more consequential ruling issued in the case by Judge Jeffery S. Frensley six days later. On July 21, 2022, the judge denied CoreCivic’s motion to quash subpoenas for confidential settlement documents from the case of another prisoner at the lockup, Boaz Pleasant-Bey, who accused CoreCivic of violating his right to practice his Muslim faith. See: Pleasant-Bey v. Tenn., USDC (M.D. Tenn.), Case No. 3:19-00486.

CoreCivic argued that the documents were irrelevant to Newby’s claim because “the Pleasant-Bey case ‘primarily involved religious rights claims,’” as the Court recalled. But Horwitz convinced the Court that the documents were relevant because they contained statements from CoreCivic personnel addressing a shortage of guards at the prison — the very situation Newby blamed for her son’s killing.

DOC fined CoreCivic $2 million for short-staffing and other contract violations at TTCC in 2018. [See: PLN, Aug. 2019, p.12.] Attached to Newby’s lawsuit also was part of the state’s January 2020 Performance Audit of DOC. That showed at the four prisons CoreCivic operated for DOC — TTCC, Hardeman County Correctional Facility (CF), South Central CF and Whiteville CF — there were a total of 3,052 “Class A” incidents “Involving Serious Risk to the Facility or Community” from October 1, 2017, to April 12, 2019. During that same time, there were just 1,739 in the state’s other ten lockups combined.

Just 19 days after losing its challenge to the subpoenas, CoreCivic joined Newby in filing a Joint Notice of Settlement and Motion to Stay on August 9, 2022. The settlement amount has not been disclosed, but Newby’s suit asked for $10 million.

Earlier, Defendants in the case — CoreCivic of Tennessee, LLC, its CEO Damon Hininger and VP Steve Conry, along with TTCC Warden Raymond Byrd and former Classification Counselor Shawna Curtis — filed the motion to sanction Horwitz, arguing that his social media posts denied them a fair trial. Apparently they were miffed that the attorney referred to CoreCivic in tweets as a “death factory” that “juices its profit margins by deliberately understaffing facilities and skimping on health care.” Horwitz also claimed that it’s easier to get drugs in CoreCivic prisons “than almost anywhere else in America.”

Horwitz also tweeted that TTCC staff had “banned the Quran, failed to file prison rape reports and had hundreds of critical staffing posts left vacant or not staffed on time during the month of December 2020,” shortly before Childress’ death. “CoreCivic’s noncompliance is persistent and recurring and is not even close to being limited to staffing issues,” Horwitz added, saying the firm’s “massively deficient and constitutionally non-compliant staffing is just business as fucking usual at @TrousdaleTurner.”

The attorney even tweeted screenshots of a deposition from the Boaz case, saying “[i]f you’re a journalist who is interested in shit like this, I can assure you there are an almost uncountable number of mind-blowing documents out there just waiting to be unearthed or pried loose with pretty minimal effort.”

Horwitz argued that his public statements met the requirements of Court rules and were protected by his First Amendment right to Freedom of Speech. He also argued “that he has affirmative obligations to pursue strategies that promote the best interests of his clients,” and that pursuing media attention in the case “encourages ‘whistleblowing’ along with ‘public scrutiny of and change regarding CoreCivic’s misbehavior at prison facilities.’”

But Frensley wasn’t having that. Writing for the Court, he insisted that “[t]rials are meant to occur in the courtroom, not in the media.” Holding Horwitz’s public communications violated Local Rule 83.04(a), the Court ordered him to delete any public communications concerning the case and to refrain from “manipulating the scope of the public record in this case.”

Horwitz appealed the gag order, calling it “unconstitutional.” On December 2, 2022, the Court dismissed the suit, denying any pending motions as moot. See: Newby v. CoreCivic of Tenn., LLC, USDC (M.D. Tenn.), Case No. 3:22-CV-00093.

Willis is not the only TTCC prisoner charged with committing murder there. Eric Wayne Elledge, 42, was also indicted in June 2021 for killing 29-year-old Aaron Blayke Adams in December 2020. At the time, Elledge was serving a 15-year term for kidnapping and aggravated assault in the 2009 abduction of his parents, which left his father dead. Adams, who was being held on a probation violation, was supposedly being held in protective custody. Childress was convicted in 2019 of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Willis was serving six years for evading arrest on charges he phoned a death threat to a Lawrence County school in 2016. 

Additional sources: Hartsville Vidette, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Nashville Tennessean

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