Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Dallas Jury Finds Jail Wasn’t Negligent in Inmate Death…

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…over 20 years ago. The Dallas Morning News reports today on this long-delayed trial. Notwithstanding the unusual posture of the case, it illustrates how overcrowding problems at one level of the corrections system can have tragic ripple effects at other levels, and in many places these problems have only gotten worse since 1990:

The case of Charles Ray Sempe was unusual because it made it to trial even though he died two decades ago when his sons were in elementary school. When the sons filed suit after turning 18, it took them years to get their day in court, including an appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.

But in the end the jury voted 10-2 to give the Sempe sons nothing. The jury reached its verdict late Monday after deliberating for about an hour and a half. The trial lasted a week.

Specifically, the jury ruled that the county didn’t deprive Sempe of his constitutional rights “through a policy of permitting unsafe conditions” in the jail that amounted to a substantial risk of harm to Sempe.

Sempe, 30, was taken to the Dallas County Jail in 1990 for a misdemeanor drug charge and was killed minutes later from a blow by another inmate, Darrell Hartfield, after he changed the TV channel.

He was in an overcrowded holding tank where hardened criminals were serving prison terms alongside men jailed for minor crimes such as unpaid traffic tickets. The county argued, however, that Sempe was not housed with violent felons.

At the time, the county jail was crowded with state prisoners because the state, faced with its own crowding problem, didn’t have the space for them. Due to a federal lawsuit, the state couldn’t take any more prisoners.

Written by sara

March 2, 2010 at 3:43 pm

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