Black Mississippians Say Sheriff’s Office Deputies ‘Terrorize The Community Like A Gang Would’
Attorneys and advocates call for change in Madison County after the deaths of three Black people at its jail and because of what they allege is a system of roadblocks targeting Black residents.
On May 6, 2018, Harvey Hill was arrested for allegedly trespassing at the home of a former employer in Madison County, Mississippi. Sheriff’s deputies took Hill, a 36-year-old handyman, to the Madison County Detention Center where he was involved in a mealtime altercation with several men.
According to Hill’s family, when guards moved in to break up the fighting, they singled out Hill for punishment. They took him back to a cell, and then pulled him out to teach him a lesson for perceived disrespect to one of the jailers. Hill was handcuffed, beaten, and pepper sprayed before guards tossed him back into his cell. The next morning, Hill was dead.
But the family said the circumstances surrounding his death didn’t come from jail officials.
“There were witnesses that were reaching out to us—and that’s basically how we found out,” Hill’s younger sister Katrina Hill Nettles told The Appeal. An attorney retained by the Hill family then deployed a private investigator to interview those witnesses about Hill’s death.
On Feb. 19, Hill’s mother, Betty, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Madison County Sheriff Randy Tucker, a master sergeant, and guards who they claim are responsible for his death.
“Prison guards of the Madison County Detention Center essentially administered the death penalty to Mr. Hill using excessive force, handcuffs, and pepper spray,” according to the complaint. “During the course of this unconstitutional assault, not one single jail guard or official attempted to stop the attack, intercede to prevent further abuse or offered medical assistance to Mr. Hill after he was obviously seriously injured or dead.”
Hill’s family is seeking compensatory and punitive damages against the defendants, according to the complaint.
A family searches for answers
When Sheriff Tucker called Betty Hill to inform her of her son’s death on May 7, 2018, he said only that he had died of cardiac arrest. “She was screaming,” Nettles remembered. “After he said my brother had passed, it wasn’t registering with me because I knew he didn’t have any type of sickness or illnesses. He wasn’t bothered with high blood pressure or heart disease.”
The Madison County sheriff’s department did not respond to The Appeal’s multiple requests for comment on the lawsuit. On March 11, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, which has taken over the probe into Hill’s death, said only that the department “anticipates” that a response to a request for information could be provided within 30 days.
More than 10 months after Hill’s death, the case remains shrouded in secrecy: The Madison County coroner has not issued a final report. As a result, the family attorneys, Carlos Moore and Derek Sells, were left to name “Officers and Jail Employees John Does 1-10” as defendants. On Feb. 26, a summons was issued in the case to “Unknown Bufford,” because the guard’s first name is not known to Hill’s legal team.
Sells, a New York-based lawyer at the Cochran Firm, said he suspects the jail’s surveillance cameras captured Hill’s assault, which may be contributing to the mystery in Madison County.
“Often times, when you have allegations of misconduct by either prison guards or any type of law enforcement, where there is video that shows that the law enforcement officer has acted appropriately, those videos get shown immediately,” Sells said. “But here, it’s been months and we haven’t gotten a peep.”
Multiple jail deaths
The Madison County Detention Center in Canton, Mississippi, is a nearly 400-bed facility housing both pretrial and sentenced prisoners. It serves an area of about 105,000 people, 26 miles north of Jackson, the state capital. It is a majority-white county with the highest per capita income in Mississippi.
Hill is one of three Black people who died at the detention center in 2018. Lanekia Brown, a 37-year-old pregnant woman, died in December after less than one month at the jail. Madison police arrested Brown on Nov. 26, after officers discovered more than 100 pounds of marijuana in her vehicle during a traffic stop. Brown’s mother told local reporters that her daughter complained of severe stomach pain but was never taken to the hospital. Larry Thompson, 51, was booked at the jail on Nov. 17, after an arrest by police in Canton. Soon afterward, Thompson’s family said witnesses at the jail told them that they saw workers beating him. Thompson was then admitted to a local hospital where, after his legs were amputated, he died. After his death, Thompson’s family released video of him playing basketball and appearing to be healthy just days before he was locked up.
All three families are represented by the Cochran Firm. “I would advise any African-American traveling through Madison County to be on high alert,” Moore said after Brown’s death, “and if your loved one … happens to be incarcerated, do all you can to get them out of jail as soon as possible because within hours or days they could be dead.”
A history of civil rights lawsuits
The Madison County sheriff’s department has been hit with approximately 30 federal lawsuits since 1999 involving prison conditions and alleged civil rights violations according to a review of federal court records by The Appeal.
In 2018, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that the department maintains “a coordinated top-down program of methodically targeting Black individuals for suspicionless searches and seizures while they are driving their cars, walking in their neighborhoods, or even just spending time in their own homes.” At the center of the program, according to the lawsuit, is a system of roadblocks used to target Black motorists; one plaintiff was stopped at least 20 times in the year preceding the filing of the initial complaint.
The lawsuit also claims that Sheriff Tucker hired an officer who had been fired from the Jackson Police Department because of a history of excessive force, including pressing his fingers into an arrestee’s eyes. Misconduct also thrives under Tucker, according the lawsuit: In June 2016, six white male deputies forcibly entered the family home of two plaintiffs without a warrant and attempted to get one resident to write a false witness statement against a neighbor’s boyfriend. When he refused, one of the deputies allegedly handcuffed, choked, and beat him in the back seat of a sheriff’s department vehicle. One plaintiff said deputies from the sheriff’s department “terrorize the community like a gang would.”
On Jan. 4, a judge in the U.S. District Court for Mississippi’s Southern District denied the complaint’s class-action status, but allowed plaintiffs alleging discrimination to amend and refile individual complaints against Madison County. On Feb. 4, several of the plaintiffs filed amended complaints against Tucker and Madison County.
“The sheriff’s department is totally out of control,” Moore, a Mississippi-based Cochran Firm attorney, told The Appeal. “We’re going to get a handle on what’s going on, and we’re going to hold those responsible accountable for the death of Harvey Hill.”
Praying for justice
When Hill was arrested on the trespassing charge in May 2018, he had already spent nearly half of his life in prison because of a 2001 conviction on robbery and sexual battery charges. “We believe Mr. Hill took responsibility for this crime, served the sentence that was imposed upon him, came out of prison a changed man,” Sells said, “and [that] should have no bearing on what happened to him while in the detention center or on his pursuit of justice in his civil rights case.”
Nettles, meanwhile, is keeping her brother’s memory alive any way she can. She’ll tell anyone who will listen how Hill loved to play basketball, that he loved to write, and that he was beloved by his nieces and nephews. Hill also loved raising dogs and, after he died, Nettles took in one of his pitbulls, named Conflict.
“I’m just praying that we do get justice, not only for my brother’s case, but for everybody,” Nettles said.