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Memphis Jail Accused of Routine Over-Detention in Suit Over Detainee’s Murder

A lawsuit filed on November 18, 2023, accused the Shelby County Jail in Memphis of routinely and deliberately denying release to eligible detainees. That’s how Marcus Donald’s family alleged the 38-year-old was still in the jail despite a court-ordered release earlier on November 17, 2022, when he was then murdered by cellmate Stephen Robinson.

The suit was filed in federal court for the Western District of Tennessee against Sheriff Floyd Bonner. Donald was one of 44 detainees to die at the jail since he assumed office in 2019. Most galling of all, the suit said, is that Donald shouldn’t have been in the jail, since he earlier in the day pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge and was sentenced to time served.

But instead of being released, he was returned to the jail and placed in a cell with Robinson, who was being held for first-degree murder. The complaint recalled that Donald repeatedly begged jailers to move him for fear of Robinson, but his requests went ignored. So did jailers’ assigned cell rounds, the suit continued, which were supposed to occur every 30 minutes; instead, surveillance video showed, Donald’s cell was left unchecked for 79 minutes, during which time Robinson strangled him to death. The suit alleged blame for the delay can be chalked up to 85 guard positions left vacant at the lockup.

But it was the delay in Donald’s release that could have been most easily avoided, the complaint continued, since jailers had “easy, immediate access” to the court-ordered release online. Though Plaintiffs predicted that Bonner “will claim his deputies cannot release inmates until someone from the court delivers those papers to their physical possession,” the suit declared: “That will be a lie.”

Donald’s parents, Marilyn and Charles Donald, are represented in their suit by attorneys Jacob W. Brown and Sara K. McKinney of Apperson Crump PLC in Memphis, along with co-counsel from attorney Ben Crump, of his eponymous firm in Washington, D.C. See: Donald v. Bonner, USDC (W.D. Tenn.), Case No. 2:23-cv-02738.

Three days after the suit was filed, Robinson, 25, pleaded guilty to Donald’s murder and was sentenced to a total of 76 years in prison. Donald’s death at the jail occurred about a month after that of Gershun Freeman, a 33-year-old psychotic whose fatal October 2022 beat-down by 10 jail guards was captured on surveillance video.

Nine of them were indicted in September 2023, including two—Stevon Jones and Courtney Parham—who were charged with second-degree murder. The other seven charged with aggravated assault were Jeffrey Gibson, Anthony Howell, Damian Cooper, Ebonee Davis, Lareko Donwel Elliot and Chelsey Duckett and Charles Gatewood.

Bonner ran unsuccessfully for Memphis Mayor in October 2023, losing in a crowded field of 17 candidates to new Mayor Paul Young(D).


Additional sources: Memphis Commercial Appeal, PBS News, WANT, WREG

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Related legal case

Donald v. Bonner