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DOJ halts two more jail suits
Jun 24, 2004 12:00 am
Activity has been temporarily halted in two more federal court lawsuits pending against the Wilson County Jail due to an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice investigation of the facility.
A review of federal court documents shows Magistrate Judge Joe B. Brown has signed orders granting stays in lawsuits filed against the jail by local residents Martha Stanley and Dexter Palmer Jones.
The magistrate's orders came after the government filed sealed motions seeking to intervene and halt proceedings in both cases. Because the DOJ filed the motions under seal, it remains unknown why the stays were being sought.
The orders, both dated June 18, basically halt all activity – except for a single subpoena seeking a pair of shoes – in both cases until Aug. 2.
"The motion to intervene is granted and all proceedings… are stayed until August 2, except that a subpoena requesting the production of shoes from a Sgt. Smith is not stayed subject to the objection of any party," Brown's order states in both cases.
The DOJ made its intentions to seek a stay in the Jones case known last month during a telephone conference with the magistrate, court records show.
The cases mark the second and third times in recent weeks that the DOJ has sought to halt activity in pending civil cases against the jail while its 17-month-old probe of the facility – which has already resulted in guilty pleas from four former guards – is underway.
Just last month the DOJ sought and was granted a stay in a lawsuit filed against the jail by one-time inmate Sergio Martinez, who alleges he was brutalized by guards while incarcerated for driving under the influence two years ago.
Jones likewise alleges in his lawsuit that he was unlawfully beaten by jailers while serving a stint behind bars for DUI. Stanley's suit was filed on behalf of her brother, Anthony Wayne Stanley, alleging excessive force by jailers and indifference to his medical condition when he was in custody shortly before his death from what is believed to be alcohol-related causes.
All three plaintiffs are represented by attorney Jerry Gonzalez, who yesterday declined comment on the lawsuits.
However the attorney confirmed that the only remaining active subpoena – seeking shoes from a jail guard identified only by his last name – was issued at his request.
County Attorney Mike Jennings said he was aware of the stays and speculated that the move could mean the end of the long-running DOJ probe is fast approaching.
"I take it from this that the government is about to conclude the grand jury investigation," Jennings remarked. "That's just what I'm reading into it, I'm certainly not saying that's definite, but that's what it would indicate to me."
Jennings said he had long anticipated the stays in the civil suits, primarily as a way to halt the pre-trial discovery phase, which often requires defendants – in this case jail guards who are also under the scrutiny of federal investigators – to answer questions under oath about specific allegations contained in a lawsuit.
The DOJ apparently fears that information important to the criminal inquiry could be revealed during the discovery process if jailers are questioned by attorneys involved in the civil suits.
The three lawsuits are among several pending against the jail as federal investigators continue their probe, which has been described in court documents filed by FBI agents and prosecutors as "an ongoing investigation into allegation of excessive force" by jailer "focusing primarily" on the lock-up's 4 p.m.-midnight "second shift."
Four former jailers – William Westmoreland, Travis Bradley, John McKinney and Chris McCathern – have already pleaded guilty to charges arising from the probe. Westmoreland has pleaded guilty to assault while his former co-workers have entered guilty pleas to charges of covering up beatings by falsifying jail incident reports and lying to federal investigators.
The investigation began with the January 2003 head injury death of inmate Walter S. Kuntz, 43, who lapsed into a coma from which he never recovered during a seven-hour stint in the jail following his arrest on an array of charges, including DUI and resisting arrest. A subsequent autopsy by the state medical examiner's office ruled his death a homicide and said his fatal injuries appeared "consistent" with those found in a beating.
Several other former or current guards are also widely believed to be primary targets of investigators, including two second-shift officers on duty the night Kuntz was jailed.
One of the two, Cpl. Gary Hale, has remained suspended with pay since the probe began. The second, former Sgt. Patrick Marlowe, resigned shortly after the investigation began, reportedly telling his superiors he was "tired of the hassles" it created.
At least two jail guards still on the payroll as recently as two weeks ago are also believed to have attracted the interest of federal investigators. One of the two, Robert Locke, angrily refused to discuss the probe when contacted by a reporter, referring to it as a "personal" matter.
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at email@example.com.