Coast newspaper pursues records on Harrison Co. inmate abuse

Published 11:33 pm Saturday, June 2, 2007

A South Mississippi newspaper has asked a federal judge to return to Harrison County copies of inmate-abuse complaints and the videotaped beating of inmate Jessie Lee Williams Jr.

The request was filed Thursday, one day after a Harrison County judge said the materials were public record under Mississippi law.

Chancery Judge Jim Persons, in an order Wednesday, said once the records are returned to the sheriff’s department, he will decide whether “to redact any personal or confidential information” before copies are provided to The Sun Herald newspaper.

The records in question, from the Harrison County jail, are in federal hands. A protective order restricts access to the records to only parties involved in the Aug. 6 trial of four former corrections officers. Williams, 40, of Gulfport, died Feb. 6, 2006, two days after a beating in the jail booking room.

The Sun Herald sued in chancery court to have the documents declared subject to the Mississippi Public Records Act.

“If we knew what went on in the jail prior to the time Jessie Lee Williams was beaten, it wouldn’t have happened and similar situations wouldn’t have happened,” said the newspaper’s lawyer, Henry Laird.

“Secondly, this is not simply a matter of the Justice Department gathering evidence in a high-profile criminal case. After we asked to inspect the records, the Justice Department monitored our requests in chancery court and came back to ask the sheriff to turn over all copies of related records.

“The federal government took these records away from the public and the newspaper,” Laird said. “The records are not the newspaper’s records. They’re the public’s records.”