It’s January 4, 2019 and I am in Division 5 of the DeKalb County Superior Court, otherwise known as Judge Gregory Adam’s courtroom. I let the Deputies know I am a lawyer representing an accused person in a case and am here for the motions calendar. They instruct me to sit in the jury box. I do. As soon as I step in the jury box, a friend of mine, Jan Hankins, a Georgia Public Defender, says “I know you. What are you doing here?” She has that look on her face of seeing someone she knows but in the wrong setting. Things are out of context. She knows I am a plaintiff’s personal injury trial lawyer. She instantly computes that I have no Earthly business in a criminal motions hearing. I explain that I will be trying a murder trial with Mike Maloof, Jr. because I have always wanted to try a criminal case and in my 30 years of practicing law, I have never handled a criminal case. A mutual friend put Mike and me together and Mike welcomed my help. Jan’s response: “If trying a murder case is on your bucket list, you need a new list.”
It is true that in 30 years of practicing law I have never handled a criminal matter. I watch a lot of criminal trial shows on TV, though. Shouldn’t that qualify me a little bit? After all, I certainly know never to talk to the police or answer a single question they ask unless my lawyer is present. I know never to give the police consent to search my car. I know never to agree to take a sobriety test. I am armed with a lot of knowledge about the criminal justice system from this. So wouldn’t it be a neat chance to add to my plethora of TV criminal justice knowledge by trying a real murder case?
Last night I had the honor of introducing the recipient of the 2018 Stonewall Bar Association Conspicuous Service Award Winner, Judge Alex Manning. We had a wonderful evening with several hundred of my closest friends in the Fabulous Fox Egyptian Ballroom. Judge Manning gave an incredible, inspirational acceptance speech. I did not have all the time I wanted to introduce her. She has an awe-inspiring personal story and she is an example of service to her community. To further honor Judge Manning, I want to share my full introduction of her here. I am proud to know Judge Manning and proud to call her my friend. What a great night!
|ALEX MANNING INTRO STONEWALL BAR ASSOC. DINNER NOVEMBER 1, 2018 BY ROBIN FRAZER CLARK||11/01/2018|
It is my distinct pleasure and proud honor to introduce to you tonight, the recipient of the Stonewall Bar Association Conspicuous Service Award, the Honorable Alexandra Manning.
Judge Alex Manning is a Judicial Officer in the Family Division of the Superior Court of Fulton County. She presides over some of the most contentious and sensitive calendars in Fulton County, including Child Support Contempt, TRO’s and Name Changes. She consistently and with the utmost respect for the rule of law and for the dignity of all those who appear before her, Judge Manning presides with both a firm hand and compassion. Judge Manning often handles name change petitions for transgender persons. Those who are seeking gender affirming name changes are often the most marginalized in our society and so come to court, understandably, vulnerable, with fear and intimidation of the formal court procedures. Many expect a judge who has little interest in helping them achieve their goal and even less understanding of why they desire to do so in the first place. You can imagine most of their reactions when they meet Judge Manning, who treats them with the dignity and respect they deserve but which they have rarely experienced by the government. Even though in 2018 we are still seeing some Superior Court judges refusing to grant a name change to a transgendered person out of some misguided personal beliefs, Judge Manning is not only a breath of fresh air in a sometimes-stagnant environment but is also the standard bearer for how judges should treat all citizens who come before them.
Judge Manning constantly demonstrated her support of the LGBTQ community before taking the bench. As a practicing lawyer she participated on a pro bono basis as co-counsel in a same gender marriage case in Dooly County, prior to the passage of Obergefell v. Hodges, in which she was able to protect the rights of a surviving spouse married in Washington, D.C., at a time when Georgia did not recognize same gender marriages. She also represented one of the first transgender individuals in the process of playing as a competitive NCAA athlete on the team that matched with gender identity. In her practice as a family lawyer she made handling second parent adoptions for LGBTQ parents a priority, even when not all Georgia court were even permitting second parent adoptions by a person of the same gender as the original adoptive parent.
Long before her legal career, Judge Manning established herself in law enforcement. She was a pioneer as one of the first waves of female certified firefighters in DeKalb County. She then went onto become a lead narcotic agent in the Georgia Bureau of Investigations and was appointed to the Governor’s Strike Force. She then became a Detective and K-9 handler and received both a Medal of Valor and Police Officer of the Year. While obtaining her undergraduate degree from Mercer University, Judge Manning worked as Senior Investigator with the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office in the Crimes Against Women and Children Unit and also at the Douglas County Public Defender’s Office. She then went to Vermont Law School and graduated in May 2006.
I first met Judge Manning when I was introduced to her at Lawyers Club by her loving partner, Lisa Liang. Lisa had wanted us to meet after learning I had successfully represented an Army Veteran in obtaining a Presidential Pardon for his military conviction of Conduct Unbecoming an Officer. His so-called unbecoming conduct was having a homosexual relationship with another man in the Army. My client was convicted and served two years in Ft. Leavenworth Prison and then was dishonorably discharged. After six years of representing him, we were overjoyed when we received word from the Pardon Counsel in the Department of Justice that President Obama was pardoning my client. As it turns out, Judge Manning endured a very similar episode in her life. Years before she distinguished herself as a GBI narcotics agent and before she was a Medal of Valor recipient and before she was named Police Officer of the Year, and before she became a respected judge on the Fulton County Family Court bench, she was discharged from the United States Army while a private. The reason for her discharge? Failure to adapt to military standards, which is Army speak for she was gay. Judge Manning disclosed this for the first time to attendees at a Vermont Law School conference on what was then the Federal policy on gays in the military, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT). After revealing her long-kept secret, Alex began advocating for the repeal of DADT, including nationwide petitioning institutions of higher learning to ban military recruiting on campuses until DADT was repealed. Vermont Law School was one of the first to do so. Alex continued this important advocacy in Georgia until DADT was finally repealed in 2011.
Can you imagine an American citizen wanting to serve her Country and being told the only reason she won’t be allowed to do so is who she loves? Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But, although DADT has been abolished, and although same gender citizens may now be married in any state in the United States, it would be wrong to say we are out of the woods of discrimination and we don’t ever have to worry about that again. We need look no further than to our current Administration’s constant threat to reinstitute a ban on gays and transgendered people in the military. Or the current Justice Department’s intervening in a private employment lawsuit arguing that the ban on sex discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not protect workers on the basis of their sexual orientation. Or the recent sentencing of a gay man to death by a South Dakota jury because sending him to prison for life would be sending him “where he wants to go and he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison.” The United States Supreme Court refused to grant the defendant’s certiorari petition on the basis of what was clearly anti-gay bias of the jury. Thus, you see why we must continue fighting the good fight.
In last year’s Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, 137 S. Ct. 855, 868, 197 L. Ed. 2d 107 (2017), Justice Kennedy wrote that “racial bias [is] a familiar and recurring evil that, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice. This Court’s decisions demonstrate that racial bias implicates unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns. An effort to address the most grave and serious statements of racial bias is not an effort to perfect the jury but to ensure that our legal system remains capable of coming ever closer to the promise of equal treatment under the law that is so central to a functioning democracy.” Until we can easily substitute “sexual orientation bias” with “racial bias” in this sentence, we have not realized the Constitution’s promise of justice for all.
So, it is not hyperbole to say Judge Manning is a true American hero, for her example, for her sacrifice, for her honesty and openness, for her dedication to equality and to justice for all. She is exactly who we want on the bench, who can bring to bear her toughness forged by personal struggle but tempered with deep compassion. And it is with that courage in mind that tonight we fittingly honor Judge Alex Manning.
Please join me in congratulating Judge Manning.
Robin Frazer Clark is a trial lawyer who pursues justice for those who have personal injury claims as a result of being injured in motor vehicle wrecks, trucking wrecks, defective products, defective maintenance of roads, premises safety, medical malpractice and other incidents caused by the negligence of others. Ms. Clark is the 50th President of the State Bar of Georgia, a Past President of Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, a Past President of the Lawyers Club of Atlanta and has practiced law in Georgia for 30 years. She is a member of the International Society of Barristers and of the American Board of Trial Advocates. Mrs. Clark is listed as one of the Top 50 Women Trial Lawyers in Georgia and is a Georgia Super Lawyer.
Robin Frazer Clark ~ Dedicated to the Constitution’s Promise of Justice for All.
What is the role of a trial judge? This question may often be debated among lawyers and between lawyers and judges themselves and maybe even by law students in school, but rarely is it a hot topic discussed in the public by non-lawyers. Until now. You may be following the Paul Manafort trial, in which the trial judge has been both criticized and congratulated for his conduct in presiding over that trial. As I write this, the jury is out. By most news accounts, that trial judge, Hon. T.S. Ellis, has often made known his likes and dislikes to the jurors and the prosecution seems to be taking the brunt of the abuse. So much so, that the prosecution has filed at least two motions requesting the trial judge apologize and make it clear to the jury that his remarks are not to be taken as commentary on the strength or weakness of the prosecution’s case. Things seem to have finally boiled over when, one morning, the trial judge did just that, he essentially admonished himself to the jury for his comments and said “Put aside any criticism. I was probably wrong in that,” and Ellis said, concluding, “Any criticism of counsel should be put aside — it doesn’t have anything to do with this case.” “This robe doesn’t make me anything other than human.”
“This robe doesn’t make me anything other than human.” Think about that for a second. Who else wears a cape at work? A Super Hero? Every word that comes out of a trial judge’s mouth in front of a jury has some persuasion attached to it…some hidden meaning. Jurors often take their cues from the trial judge. If the trial judge doesn’t seem to like a certain attorney, well, guess what? The jury probably won’t like that attorney, either. Jurors may be thinking: “Who does the judge think should win? He’s the expert, he knows. Does he like the defense attorney better than the plaintiff’s attorney? Does she think the plaintiff is exaggerating? He was rude to the female lawyer…maybe he thinks she is incompetent? What will he think of us if we find for the plaintiff? And return a large verdict? Maybe he thinks that shouldn’t happen in his courtroom?” As one trial lawyer said about Judge Ellis. “He can be very dominating,” said Jim Brosnahan, a California trial lawyer who defended John Walker Lindh in the American Taliban casebefore Judge Ellis. “The interesting question is: Is it aimed fairly at both sides, or is it particularly at one side?” Also, keep in mind how extraordinary it is that Judge Ellis essentially apologized to the jury for his own comments, recognizing they may have sent the wrong signal to the jury. This is a very rare occurrence for a judge to do that.
First, let me say, that we are blessed with many wonderful trial judges in Georgia. I have tried nearly 75 jury trials in the last 30 years of practicing law, all in Georgia, and with the very blatant exception of one Superior Court judge (she knows who she is), I have always been treated with the utmost respect and courtesy by our trial judges. Even when we may disagree, we do so with civility, not taking personal shots at one another. That is not to say that some aren’t demanding, or controlling, or picky, or even temperamental. Many trial judges are all of those things, because they are human and sometimes the stress of a trial gets to them the way it gets to everyone involved or they simply see their role as being in command of their courtroom. It has been my experience that our Georgia trial judges treat all those who come before them with the civility expected out of someone who wears a robe, has her name on a courtroom and has been given the authority by the State to preside over a trial, which is often one of the most important moments in a citizen’s life.
It seems to be in vogue with some trial judges currently to allow jurors to ask questions of witnesses after both sides of the litigation are finished asking their questions. This is currently a hot topic due to the Tex McIver trial, currently being tried in the Fulton County Superior Court in front of Judge Robert McBurney. Judge McBurney, rather famously, permits jurors to ask questions of witnesses after questioning by the prosecution and the defense counsel. Presumably, Judge McBurney allows this practice in civil cases as well as criminal cases, although Superior Court doesn’t see as many civil cases as criminal. All felonies in Georgia must be tried in Superior Court. The practice of Judge McBurney allowing witnesses to ask their own questions was discussed extensively before the trial in a podcast produced by the AJC called Breakdown. It is hosted by veteran legal affairs journalist Bill Rankin and I highly recommend it. In that podcast, defense counsel Bruce Harvey gives his opinion on why it is not only a bad practice to allow jurors to ask questions, but, also, why it is probably unconstitutional. For example, we all know that the 5th Amendment of the Constitution gives a criminal defendant the right to remain silent, even throughout the trial, so that the government must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt without any assistance from the defendant. Harvey, rightfully, preposes the hypothetical of a juror asking “Why didn’t the defendant take the stand to tell us what happened?” Of course, the judge is not going to permit that question to be answered, but the jurors (or at least the one juror who asked that question) will know the judge didn’t approve it and wouldn’t permit it to be answered, and the bias that answers “why” is naturally because the defendant must be guilty. So simply by denying that juror’s question, the 5th amendment constitutional right is implicated and violated because it was allowed even to be raised in court.
There has lately been alot of discussion in social media about this among lawyers, too. You can find some of this discussion on Twitter at #texmciver and in the comments on Facebook where WSBTV is livestreaming the trial. If I were to take a poll, I think the vast majority of trial lawyers is against the practice for the reasons stated above. Also, other websites are livestreaming the same WSBTV feed, like wildabouttrial and lawandcrime. Both of these websites have a comments section where viewers can post their comments about the trial. It is pretty fascinating, especially for court enthusiasts like me. On Facebook, there have been some thought-provoking comments about allowing jurors to ask questions of witnesses. Below are just some of the comments I have seen:
“I think there are two questions that judges should ask themselves before considering this. 1). Why would I allow jurors to ask questions? Whatever the answer is (to help the jurors clarify any issues that the holder of the burden of proof has not clarified, etc). 2). If I am am being a neutral, unbiased referee, should that matter to me?”
Yesterday I was in the Chicago O’Hare airport after taking the deposition of a defense expert anesthesiologist at the University of Chicago and sat down for lunch next to a nice couple from the Boston area. We started talking and I, of course, told them I am a plaintiff’s personal injury trial lawyer from Atlanta in Chicago for the purpose of taking an adverse expert witness’s deposition. They were mesmerized. We talked a bit about the case which led, predictably, to their telling me about their personal experiences with both the Criminal and Civil Justice Systems.
The husband of the nice couple told me about his experience in serving on a criminal jury as the foreperson. Like most folks facing jury duty, at first he was upset about missing work, resented being herded around the courtroom like cattle and being kept in the dark about what was happening, and was overall just unhappy about being forced to take part in the entire process. Yet, as the testimony came in and the trial moved on,things, including his attitude, changed. The case was about a man, the defendant, who allegedly had abused his three year old son. The man had taken his son away from the child’s mother’s home but the mother wasn’t even aware of it. The evidence against the father was, apparently, overwhelming. My new buddy, who was telling me about his experience, was picked to be the foreperson of the jury. He immediately felt an enormous weight on his shoulders to do the right thing. Not all of the jurors at first wanted to convict, even though he felt the evidence to do so was overwhelming. Some of the jurors wanted to hear some of the testimony again, some of them wanted to see pieces of evidence again. They wanted to be sure. In the end, the jury voted unanimously to convict. My new friend said that when he read the verdict out loud in the courtroom, he felt an enormous sense of duty and pride. He felt moved to tears. The jurors, to a person, took their duty very seriously and followed the court’s instructions unwaveringly. He felt like he was the little boy’s hero. Now, looking back, he hopes he’ll get the chance to serve on a jury again. Both he and his wife said that if they were ever the parties in a trial, they would want people like themselves serving on their jury.
Fascinating story, but I’m not surprised. This is often the story I hear from people who have served on juries, criminal or civil. The sense of duty is extremely strong. By serving on a jury, you are breathing life into the United States Constitution and doing your part as a citizen to make our judicial system work. Without jurors, the system would collapse and we would cease to be a democratic nation. Jurors ensure that a person’s constitutional rights to a fair trial by a jury of his or her peers is protected. That is not overstating things. And something about being in the formal courtroom, where lives are at stake, where injured plaintiffs seek to have the harms done to them balanced by damages from the wrongdoer, makes that sense of honor and duty to your nation come alive. Jurors are the heroes of victims of crime and of those citizens who are personally injured through no fault of their own. The courtroom is the great Equalizer, where the son of the richest man in America is the equal of a homeless person, and where the smartest graduate of Harvard University is the equal of a high-school drop-out. All persons are treated equally in a court of law.
Some recent headlines about trial judges behaving badly and a recent bad experience I personally experienced at trial last week have me thinking about this: what should you expect from a trial judge? Competency? Fairness? Mercy? Understanding? Knowledge of the rules of evidence? Impartiality? Experience? Ability to stay awake during the trial? Maybe all of the above?
I only half-jokingly included in the desired traits list above the ability to stay awake on the bench. Just this week an Illinois appellate court ruled that the fact that the trial judge slept through some of a murder trial did not automatically result in a reversal of the conviction or warrant a new trial. That sleeping jurist claimed he had not actually fallen asleep but was simply resting his eyes. “If I was not looking at the video, that does not mean that I was not listening and hearing everything that was being said,” said O’Connor, who called the motion “disgusting,” according to a transcript cited in the appellate ruling. So Justice may be blind but it doesn’t have to be awake?
The question of what should we expect in a trial judge also has been hotly debated this week when the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a judicial appointee of POTUS for a Federal trial bench opening in Alabama. The reason for the outrage among lawyers about the judicial nominee is the fact that he is only 36 years old, has never tried a case and has practiced law for only 3 years. Many have called him “clearly unqualified” to take the trial bench and that his appointment is “laughable”. He has literally never tried a case! Can’t we all agree that to be able to preside competently over a trial by jury, make life-changing decisions of what evidence gets in and what evidence doesn’t, decide whether a litigant receives a constitutionally protected fair trial, that the trial judge should at least have tried a case before?
As I work at my desk in my office today, I have the voir dire (jury selection) in the retrial of Ray Tensing livestreaming on one of my monitors. Some folks have called jury selection the most boring part of any trial, but it may very well be the most important, because from jury selection comes the group of local citizens who will decide the fate of the parties in the case and really decide what the conscience of the community is regarding the issue being tried. The Ray Tensing case is an excessive force case being tried in Cincinnati, Ohio this week. Tensing is the former University of Cincinnati police officer charged with one count of murder and one count of voluntary manslaughter in connection with the 2015 shooting death of Sam DuBose. The deadly encounter happened during an off-campus traffic stop. Tensing has said he fired his service weapon in self defense. The incident was captured by Tensing’s police-issued body-worn camera. A am watching the criminal trial of Mr. Tensing, who is being tried for on one count of murder and one count of voluntary manslaughter. There has already been a civil case that settled for money damages against the University of Cincinnati, Mr. Tensing’s employer at the time of the killing. It is being tried for a second time because the first trial ended in a mistrial. Watching voir dire or jury selection is helpful to me as a trial lawyer, not only in ideas of potential bias to explore but in hearing how a certain cross-section of our nation feels about jury trials in general. It is interesting that in Ohio, if a lawyer asks the Court to strike a juror for cause, meaning the juror has expressed so much bias about the issues and has stated he doesn’t think he could be fair on the case, the lawyer moves to strike the juror out loud in front of all the other jurors. For example, one juror who the judge struck for cause said in jury selection that he thought Mr. Tensing “deserved a medal” for shooting Mr. Dubose. No wonder why he was struck for cause. In Georgia, we don’t do it that way because of the fear that once the judge strikes one juror for cause, in front of all the other jurors, the rest of the jurors will figure out what to say to get off the jury and then pretty soon all the jurors are gone. So in Georgia we approach the bench and make these sort of motions to the judge at her bench.
Many of the folks in the Tensing jury panel have mentioned the concern and anxiety they had simply upon receiving a juror summons requiring them to be present in court for the jury selection of this case. They have expressed their bewilderment about whey they of all people in Cincinnati received a juror summons, why they have to be there, why they have to take time out of their jobs and lives to be there…in short, why them? Why me?
Interesting question, and with a recent opinion issued by the Supreme Court of Georgia, Ricks v. State, infra, regarding how a jury panel is composed, I thought it merited looking into the issue of jury composition a bit deeper. Georgia has a fairly new Jury Composition Rule that controls the manner in which Georgia citizens will be summoned for jury duty. For use in compiling official lists of potential jurors, the Jury Composition Act directs the Clerks Council to obtain voter registration records from the Secretary of State and driver’s license and identification card records from the Department of Driver Services (“DDS”); the Act also directs the Clerks Council to obtain records on individuals who are ineligible for jury service, including certain records regarding mentally incompetent persons and convicted felons who have not had their civil rights restored. See id. § 1-16 (codified as amended as OCGA § 15-12-40.1 (b), (c)). Ricks v. State, S17A0465, 2017 WL 2061675, (Ga. May 15, 2017)
We are about to reach the 100 day milestone of the current POTUS, and with that come many criticisms and many “attaboys.” It’s all in the eye of the beholder. This POTUS is the first in a string NOT to be a lawyer. When you think about that, the fact that he is not a lawyer, nor has he ever served in any public service role, means he has had no formal training in the Constitution nor in either drafting, interpreting or applying legislation. These are things that lawyers do every day, day in and day out. That is pretty obvious. What may not be at the forefront of your mind when thinking about lawyers is the professionalism displayed by lawyers every day. Not only must lawyers as professionals in the practice of law abide by certain formal ethical rules and rules of professionalism, they must also insure they practice with a certain courtesy and respect for their opponents and for the judicial system that other people, say, real estate tycoons, for example, do not. So as we approach that 100 day marker for the POTUS, I have been thinking of a few things that POTUS, a non-lawyer, so far has failed to demonstrate consistently in the last 100 days and what he could learn from lawyers…things I think would naturally serve him, his administration and most importantly, the people of the United States, well.
- Be Impeccable With Your Word. A lawyer’s ability to advocate successfully for his or her client is only as good as his or her credibility, and credibility directly flows from being able to count on what a lawyer says as being true. No half-truths, no hedging the truth, no embellishment to make your facts seem just a little bit better than they really are. A lawyer must always tell the truth in all dealings or risk complete ineffectiveness, or worse, a client’s, or an opposing counsel’s, or a judge’s (gasp!) not being able to believe what the lawyer is telling them. Once that happens, all is lost. You may have heard this referred to as “your word is your bond.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines this as “If someone’s word is their bond, they always keep a promise.” Nothing is truer for a lawyer. Lawyers even have a duty of candor to the court to inform the court of case law or precedent that goes against their client’s position in court. Can you imagine a salesperson having to tell a customer that he could actually sell a car to you for less than what you, the customer, is willing to pay for it? Of course not, but lawyers are required to act with that much candor and honestly at all times before the Court. The ideals of professionalism in the practice of law are aimed at ensuring our profession remains a “high calling” and not “just a business like any other,” enlisted in the service not only of the clients, but of the public good as well. “A Lawyer’s Creed,” developed by the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism (the Commission), states it as thus: “To the courts, and other tribunals, and to those who assist them, I offer respect, candor, and courtesy. I will strive to do honor to the search for justice. ”
- Never Take Anything Personally. I think this is good advice for everyone, but especially lawyers must behave like this and are expected to do so. Trial lawyers must always do their jobs in an adversarial situation. By definition, there will also be another lawyer representing the opposing party in a lawsuit trying his or her level best to prevent you from succeeding. Think how hard this is! If we were talking about the profession of medicine and using surgery as our analogy, no other surgeon comes into an operating room to try to prevent the operating surgeon from performing the surgery successfully! No other doctor comes in and tries to kill your patient! But that is precisely what occurs in the practice of law. Every time I represent a client there is an opposing counsel trying to prevent me from succeeding. It’s pretty stressful, but would be even worse if the lawyer takes his opposing counsel’s efforts personally. The opposing counsel is just trying to do his job well, too. That’s all. And The Lawyer’s Creed requires lawyers to promise this to opposing counsel: “To my colleagues in the practice of law, I offer concern for your welfare. I will strive to make our association a professional friendship.” We also are required to make this promise: “To the opposing parties and their counsel, I offer fairness, integrity and civility. I will seek reconciliation and, if we fail, I will strive to make our dispute a dignified one.” Temper tantrums and other demonstrations of pettiness and “unsportsmanlike conduct” have no place in the legal profession. Following a trial, adversaries shake hands, regardless of the outcome. I have never had a problem shaking the hand of my able adversary when he or she has conducted himself or herself with integrity and professionalism throughout the litigation. It honors our justice system and your opponent. As Shakespeare wrote in “The Taming of the Shrew,” “do as adversaries do in law, strive mightily but eat and drink as friends.”
“They treated him worse than a dog.” That is how Kevin Williams, brother of Elliott Williams, described what correctional officers did to his brother at the Tulsa (Oklahoma) jail where Elliott was held for a week after being picked up by Tulsa police for behaving erratically at a hotel. Apparently, Elliott Williams was in the throws of a mental breakdown after his wife informed him she was leaving him. Tulsa police picked him but never charged him with any crime, never finger-printed him, never set bond and never allowed him to call his family, despite repeated requests. Mr. Williams told the guards he could not walked and felt he may have injured himself in his cell by hitting his head. The guards thought Mr. Williams was joking, despite Mr. Williams’ lying naked on a blanket on the floor of his cell. He obviously could not move his lower extremities. The hard-to-watch video shows the six days of agonizing torture Mr. Williams suffered at the hands of the jail guards. I am warning you: before you watch the video, which is linked in The Frontier’s article about the case. It is nothing short of humiliating, degrading human torture by these guards. The video clearly shows the guards barely walking into Mr. Williams’ cell. One places a cup of water on the floor by him. Several times they slide boxes of food near him, which, of course, he can’t reach, open or eat because he is paralyzed. He does not drink anything or eat anything for six days while these jail guards watch him die. The only water he has for those horrific six days are a couple of drops that he is able to put in his mouth after he somehow was able to dip his fingers into a cup of water on the floor. The video shows no attempt to give Mr. Williams any assistance at all, much less medical assistance to determine whether he was actually paralyzed, during those six long days. On the sixth day and the day of his death, the medical staff finally arrives, tests for reflexes and of course there are none because he is paralyzed and dead or dying. Only on the sixth day, after no medical help, no food, no water, does the jail’s medical staff attempt CPR on Mr. Williams, which of course does not work as he is dead. Mr. Williams was allowed to die a most inhumane death conceivable, and his brother very aptly described it: “He was treated worse than a dog.”
I have recently filed a lawsuit against Georgia State Prison for the attempted suicide of an inmate after he was found to be experiencing a psychotic break and in need of emergency psychiatric attention. The prison’s idea of “emergency” psychiatric referral was an appointment with a psychiatrist five days later. Of course, my client, Nicholas, who was only 19 years old at the time, never made it to that appointment scheduled five days later because less than 24 hours after being diagnosed with experiencing a psychotic break he attempted suicide by hanging himself with his bed sheet in his cell. His cellmate yelled and yelled for help. After a prison guard finally arrived at the cell, the guard saw him hanging but refused to get him down from the bed sheet noose. Instead, that guard radioed for assistance and the other guards, rather than helping Nicholas down from hanging, retrieved a camera to film him hanging. That video, as you can imagine, is graphic. Then the camera runs out of battery charge. So the guards leave Nicholas hanging and retrieve a second camera (I am NOT making this up) to continue filming him. Finally, the guards go into the cell to remove Nicholas and find that he is still alive. They begin CPR. They are able to revive him, but due to the lack of oxygen for such a long time, he is left in a persistent minimally conscious state and suffered irreversible brain damage. He now requires 24 hour care in a nursing home. He cannot eat, he cannot speak and he cannot move by himself. To say this case is tragic would be a massive understatement.
So, I have been immersing myself in jail and prison suicide cases and the applicable law. Essentially, the only way to sue a jail or prison successfully on this type of constitutional rights violation is under a Federal statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Under this statute, the plaintiff must prove that the state actor (individual state or government employee) acted with “deliberate indifference” to the constitutional rights of the inmate. The determination as to whether a state actor acted with deliberate indifference in violation of either the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendment consists of an objective and subjective inquiry. Hopper v. Montgomery Cty. Sheriff, 3:14-CV-158, 2017 WL 495511, at *12 (S.D. Ohio Feb. 6, 2017). “Deliberate indifference requires the following: (1) subjective knowledge of a risk of serious harm; (2) disregard of that risk; (3) by conduct that is more than gross negligence.” Shuford v. Conway, 16-12128, 2016 WL 6820764, at 6 (11th Cir. Nov. 18, 2016). The plaintiff must show the constitutional right allegedly violated was “clearly established” at the time of the incident, so that an officer cannot claim as a defense that he “didn’t know” his treatment of an inmate violated the inmate’s constitutional rights. “In this circuit, the law can be ‘clearly established’ for qualified immunity purposes only by decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, or the highest court of the state where the case arose.” Jenkins by Hall v. Talladega City Bd. of Educ., 115 F.3d 821, 826 n.4 (11th Cir. 1997). This inquiry is limited to the law at the time of the incident, as “an official could not be reasonably expected to anticipate subsequent legal developments.” A plaintiff can show the constitutional right violated was clearly established in three different ways: (1) case law with indistinguishable facts clearly establishing the constitutional right; (2) a broad statement of principle within the Constitution, statute, or case law that clearly establishes a constitutional right; or (3) conduct so egregious that a constitutional right was clearly violated, even in the total absence of case law. Lewis v. City of W. Palm Beach, 561 F.3d 1288, 1291–92 (11th Cir. 2009); see also Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 743, 122 S.Ct. 2508, 2517, 153 L.Ed.2d 666 (2002) (noting that the reasoning of this Circuit’s holdings, even if a case did not involve the same precise facts, sends a sufficient message to reasonable officers in this Circuit for the purposes of the “clearly established analysis”).