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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Sheriff Off the Hook for Murder Behind Bars

(CN) - The family killed in a jail by a fellow inmate repeatedly deemed mentally unfit for trial did not leave the sheriff of DeKalb County, Ga., liable, the 11th Circuit ruled.

Godfrey Cook was awaiting trial in the DeKalb County Jail when he was murdered on Jan. 7, 2009.

Cook's killer, Saleevan Adan, had been at the jail continuously for nearly a year prior to that date after a psychologist finally deemed him competent to stand trial for a 2001 murder. Adan had spent most of the intervening time receiving treatment by the state. He killed Cook during his transfer from one cell to another.

Cook's estate and children sued DeKalb County Sheriff Thomas Brown and several others for failing to protect him from inmate violence under a Civil Rights Act, the Georgia Wrongful Death Act and the 14th Amendment.

Finding that the family could show Brown had "recklessly disregarded a substantial risk of serious harm to Cook," a federal judge denied the sheriff summary judgment based on the basis of qualified immunity.

A three-judge panel in Atlanta reversed Wednesday, however, because it found no evidence that Brown had violated Cook's constitutional rights.

The 36-page ruling explains that the DeKalb County Jail is an indirect observation facility where officers observe more than 3,000 inmates from a central tower rather than each housing area. Each cell contains a call button for inmates to contact officers in the tower, according to the ruling.

MHM Correctional Services helps the jail classify and house the inmates according to their medical needs. Officers can move inmates to a different cell within their designated pod, and many cells include two beds.

While Sheriff Brown knew Adan had been indicted for murder, he did not necessarily know that Adan would be violent against plaintiff, the court found. Nor did he know of any medically necessary reason to isolate the inmate since MHM determined his housing area.

"A sheriff cannot be held liable for failing to segregate mental health inmates whom trained medical personnel have concluded do not present a risk of harm to themselves or others," Judge Gerald Tjoflat wrote for the court.

Though Cook's family alleged that officers lacked training and violated jail policies during the inmate transfer leading to Cook's murder, the court found that the officers were trained and the appropriate policies were in place at the time.

The argument by Cook's representative "is especially tenuous because not only does she fail to demonstrate Sheriff Brown was on notice, she also fails to demonstrate how 'better training' would have prevented the incident," according to the ruling.

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