South Miss. newspaper sues over Harrison Co. jail records

Published 12:51 am Sunday, February 4, 2007

The Sun Herald newspaper has filed a lawsuit to get access to public records and correspondence involving prisoner-abuse complaints at the county jail.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit filed Friday in Harrison County Chancery Court were the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, the sheriff’s department and Sheriff George H. Payne Jr.

Payne’s attorney, Cy Faneca, said Friday he has not seen the lawsuit and could not comment.

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The lawsuit, which gives only one side of the legal argument, alleges the defendants violated the Mississippi Public Records Act by denying the newspaper access to complaints made by prisoners reporting abuse by officers and by other inmates.

The lawsuit also claims the newspaper has been wrongly denied access to a copy of the videotape that recorded the fatal beating of inmate Jessie Lee Williams Jr.

Henry Laird, the newspaper’s attorney, said The Sun Herald had filed several public records requests for information, including the videotape, since the Feb. 4, 2006, beating at the jail.

Most of the requests have been denied, with the respective agencies basing their denial on a related investigation, he said.

“These issues have been hidden from the public, the public has been misled and we need to open up to the public how the jail is run because of the abuses that have happened there,” said Laird.

Since August 2006, five former Harrison County corrections officers have pleaded guilty to conspiring, under color of law, to deprive inmates of their rights with the use of excessive and unnecessary force. A sixth former jailer remains in custody awaiting trial and could be prosecuted under the federal death penalty.

“We’re doing this because law enforcement has attempted to convert records that are normally not used in a criminal investigation into records they say now are being used in a criminal investigation,” Laird said.

Laird said the newspaper is asking that a judge order the documents be brought into chambers for a private review. If the judge agrees with the newspaper, the judge could order the documents produced or copied, he said.

The newspaper also asked the Department of Public Safety for copies of correspondence between its agency and the sheriff’s department involving inmate grievances, Laird said.

The sheriff at first agreed to allow the newspaper to inspect and copy inmate grievances, according to the lawsuit.

However, the lawsuit alleges the sheriff changed his mind after the Department of Justice said the correspondence should not be disclosed because of the ongoing federal investigation into Williams’ death.

Laird said Payne did provide access to some of the documents requested by the newspaper.