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Former Mississippi Sheriff Indicted for Bribery After Allegedly Allowing Detainee Rape at County Jail

by Jordan Arizmendi

Three years after retiring, and 16 years after the first rape allegations surfaced at Mississippi’s Noxubee County Jail (NCJ), former Sheriff Terry Grassaree has been indicted on federal charges. On October 5, 2022, Grassaree and a former deputy were accused of bribing a detainee with a cellphone to send nude selfies with it, and then lying when questioned about it by federal agents.

NCJ staff has faced allegations of sexual misconduct with detainees since Grassaree was a deputy. That’s also something he was accused of turning a blind eye toward during an eight-year term as Sheriff that began in 2011. Whenever an allegation surfaced that led to a lawsuit, the Noxubee County insurer paid to settle the claim, and NCJ staffers escaped any charges.

When Grassaree was promoted to Chief Deputy in the 1990s, the jail reportedly was already a free-for-all spot with few rules. Detainees roamed the building without having to log in and with practically no supervision. One detainee even showed up at a court hearing without a deputy; he had driven from the jail by himself, according to the district attorney at the time.

Detainees and prisoners allegedly had such freedom at the jail that men would just walk into the woman’s ward. One woman claimed that, on one day, three different prisoners got keys to enter her locked cell and raped her and her cellmate. The two women even passed a lie detector test. The three alleged rapists refused to take one. The woman, Jessie Levette Douglas, filed a lawsuit that the county settled in 2009. According to the Macon Beacon, she was paid $375,000.

But the horrors continued, other detainees said. Women made startling accusations about the jail. Those were settled with payouts. One victim claimed that Grassaree pressured her to sign a false statement that exonerated jail staff. Then when state agents investigated, Grassaree just presented the signed statement, claiming that everything was consensual.

However, the FBI began investigating after former detainee Elizabeth Layne Reed filed suit in 2020, accusing Deputies Vance Phillips and Damon Clark of raping her at the jail. After the investigation, bribery charges were filed against Phillips and Grassaree, but not Clark. The FBI said that the deputy gave Reed a contraband cellphone, but when Grassaree found out, he did not discipline Clark. Instead, the Sheriff allegedly demanded that Reed use the phone to send nude selfies. Then, when the FBI questioned him about it, he lied in response, investigators said.

According to 2018 Department of Justice guidance, law enforcement officers cannot be federally prosecuted for violating a person’s civil rights if the person received something in exchange – like a cellphone. But in Reed’s case, the phone “was the vehicle by which more abuse could be directed towards her,” explained Loyola University law professor Andrea Armstrong. So when she used it to send the nude shots, those were “not freewill choices.”

State law also protected Grassaree and his alleged crimes against those he swore to protect. No state regulator in Mississippi has authority to fine a sheriff for harming those in custody, nor can he be fined for failing to train the staff running the jail. In other words, Grassaree was untouchable – almost.

Both the former Sheriff and his deputy are now charged with “using facilities in interstate commerce, namely, the internet and cellular phone, for the purpose of committing the offense of bribery.” If convicted, Phillips faces up to five years in prison, and Grassaree up to ten years. Trial is set for June 2023, and PLN will continue to report developments in the case. See: USA v. Grassaree, USDC (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 3:22-cr-00109.

Additional sources: New York Times, Raw Story