HOUSTON (CN) – The mother of a death row inmate who hung himself with shoelaces in Harris County Jail asked a federal judge to stop the county from putting prisoners in solitary confinement.
A jury sentenced Antonio Lee Williams to death in December 2007 after prosecutors persuaded them he gunned down two people with an assault rifle in northwest Houston in August 2006.
Williams was moved from a state prison to the Harris County Jail in downtown Houston in early 2015 for hearings on his state habeas petitions. Jailers found Williams’ body hanging in his cell on Feb. 19, 2015. He was 34.
“Allegedly, his shoelaces were looped over the exposed ledge of an inset grate in his solitary holding cell in an area called ‘Administrative Segregation,’” his mother’s lawsuit states.
Sharon Moon sued Harris County CEO Ed Emmett, former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and former Harris County prosecutor Lance Long, in their individual and official capacities, on Tuesday in Federal Court.
Moon also claims that her son was wrongly convicted, because Long “conspired to pressure witnesses to lie about their identification of Mr. Williams as the perpetrator of the capital murder.”
Two women who identified Williams as the shooter during his trial later said they had been coached to lie by investigators and prosecutors, the Houston Chronicle reported.
One of the witnesses, Sharonda Cooper, signed a sworn affidavit that month admitting she lied, according to the Chronicle.
“I was scared to tell the truth. The reason I was scared was because I had a pending injury to a child case and I was scared my children would be taken away if I did not help the state,” Cooper said in the statement.
Moon blames former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who was in charge of the jail when her son died, for failing to train his jailers to recognize when inmates are at risk of suicide.
“Despite regulations prohibiting such items, Mr. Williams was permitted to possess shoelaces even in administrative segregation and while he was receiving psychotropic medications for depression,” the complaint states.
Moon also sued Garcia’s “successor,” without identifying former Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman.
Moon’s attorney Patrick McCann, an experienced appellate lawyer who handled Williams’ state habeas cases, said he does not think Harris County has improved its monitoring of inmates in solitary confinement since Williams died.
“Part of the problem is I don’t believe it was a priority for the past administration, by that I mean Sheriff Ron Hickman. I’m hopeful the new administration is actually going to take a serious look at that,” McCann said in an interview about Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, a Democrat, who upset Hickman in the November 2016 election and took office in January.
Between 2005 and 2015, 199 people died in custody of the Sheriff’s Office and 26 of them committed suicide, the Houston Press reported in August 2016, citing a database compiled by a University of Texas researcher.
“I believe a significant portion of what caused this was the conditions of administrative segregation and I think solitary confinement is something people go to too early and too often,” McCann said.
He said this is the first time he has sought an injunction to stop Harris County from putting people in solitary.
The Sheriff’s Office did not respond Thursday to an inquiry about how many people are in solitary confinement in the county jail.
Moon seeks damages for wrongful death and violations of the Eighth and 14th Amendments.
Long, the lead prosecutor she accuses of misconduct, told the Chronicle on Wednesday that Harris County had also charged Williams for the murders of three other people, and the attempted murder of a fourth person, but did not pursue those charges after it got the death penalty conviction.
Weeks before she took office in January, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg fired Long and 39 other prosecutors, fulfilling a campaign pledge to take the office in a new direction.
Long is now a Jefferson County prosecutor in Beaumont, its seat.