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Jail Beating Case Liability Exceeds Harrison County's Insurance Capacity
by Keith Burton - GCN           Filed 8/18/06

The potential for a financial catastrophe looms from the Jessie Lee Williams jail beating homicide case that is under investigation by the U.S. Attorney's and others. According to District 3 Supervisor Dr. Marlin Ladner, the county is only insured to $1 million dollars. The county is already a party in a $150 million lawsuit filed in behalf of the Williams' family.

While the civil lawsuit has been postponed by court order until the federal, and perhaps, the District Attorney's cases are finished, the potential for Harrison County to find itself in a financial crisis over this case is very real. As Gulfport has also been made party in the lawsuit, it is also in danger.

Many Harrison County residents have watched the controversies at the Harrison County jail for years and not paid that much attention to the problem there. But this latest series of events, many that have yet to unfold, is something every county resident should pay attention to.

If a judgment eventually came in in excess of the county's ability to pay, the result could be that the county would have to borrow the remaining balance. This money would then have to be repaid by county taxpayers. In this scenario, money the county needs for development and hurricane improvements in the future may have to be put off. In addition, there are occasions in cases elsewhere when a governing body cannot pay and the local government has to give up property to pay claims stemming from lawsuits.

Harrison County officials know they face a serious issue regarding the systemic and long-time problems at the jail. While supervisors say they cannot discuss the jail's problems or the Williams case since they are named in the lawsuit, they are trying to figure out a way to limit what losses may eventually occur.

Questions have been raised over the slow progress in the case. Williams was allegedly beaten to death in the Harrison County jail after a minor misdemeanor arrest by Gulfport Police February 4, 2006. The case soon became involved in a federal inquiry under the control of the U.S. Attorney in Mississippi. Sheriff George Payne has been mostly silent, as also District Attorney Cono Caranna. The district attorney has not explained why a federal civil rights case, which is why the U.S. Attorney is involved, has precedent over murder.  Caranna has yet to file any charges for murder even though the county's coroner ruled, on March 6, nearly a month after Williams died, that the death was a homicide by blunt force trauma.

Just recently, attorneys representing the Williams family asked a federal judge to act on a 1995 court order that could result in the jail being taking over by the Justice Department if the jail failed to meet the court order's requirements. Judge Walter Gex ruled that the Williams attorneys were not party to the original process and therefore could not trigger the federal oversight. But the judge did leave open such as request from those parties that were part of the original court order.

Those parties include the County, the Harrison County Sheriff, and the U.S. Attorney. None of them have requested that the 1995 court order be triggered.

Supervisor Marlin Ladner says he does not believe the board will request that the 1995 court order by acted upon by the board. He says the board's efforts so far are to find a way to privatize the jail's operation.

Eventually, all of the controversy around the jail is going to end up with an expensive lawsuit or lawsuits, regardless of the outcome of the criminal cases, and that means money. Not the county's money or the Sheriff's money. But taxpayer's money. And with each day, those numbers are getting bigger.

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