A telling detail about Shon Demetrius McClain's death at the hands of a Wake County Detention Center officer is the video—vivid, unambiguous video—showing exactly what transpired on that day in June 2013. There's none of the murkiness that usually surrounds the killings of young, black men by law enforcement, no questions about the veracity of inmate-witnesses, no legitimate case that this was self-defense, as the detention officer, Markeith Council, claimed.
Here is what that video shows: a verbal altercation between McClain, a 5-foot-6, 145-pound 40-year-old who had been locked up for drinking at a Raleigh bus station and possessing drug paraphernalia, and Council, a 6-foot, 290-pound guard, who had played college football. Council shoves McClain, who stumbles and falls, then gets back up and approaches Council again. After McClain raises his arms toward Council, the guard grabs him, punches him in the back, then body slams him to the concrete floor, WWE style. Council then picks up McClain's limp body and plows him into the concrete again, head first.
Thirteen days later, McClain died in the hospital of blunt-force trauma to the head and neck. He never regained consciousness.
McClain was hardly a sympathetic character. His rap sheet, according to media reports, included "indecent liberties with a child" and failing to register as a sex offender.
Even so, in December 2013, a Wake County jury found Council guilty of involuntary manslaughter. A judge sentenced him to 90 days in the same jail he used to work, then up to two years probation.
For McClain's family, that wasn't enough.
Last week, McClain's sister, Marlene Gilbert, filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against Council, Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison and the sheriff's office's insurance company, demanding a jury trial and seeking monetary damages. That wasn't unexpected: With a guilty verdict already in hand, a lawsuit was inevitable.
But in her complaint, Gilbert—represented by attorney and state Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue Jr.—goes beyond the one incident and alleges a pattern of unchecked abuses inside the jail: "Detention officers employed by the Wake County Sheriff, including Markeith Council, have a history of disciplinary problems that have resulted in the serious injury of other pre-trial detainees."
Almost a year before McClain's death, the lawsuit continues, Council allegedly shoved an inmate and "physically moved him from one location to another by pulling the detainee by his hair."
(Through a spokesman, the Wake County Sheriff's Office declined to comment. Dhamian Blue, another attorney representing Gilbert, declined to speak on the record.)
It's not the first time Wake County detainees have made such claims.
In 2011, as the INDY reported, an inmate named Eugene Dunston sued three detention officers and Sheriff Harrison alleging excessive use of force.
According to Dunston's lawsuit, in September 2010, two officers knocked him to the ground, beat him and dragged him by his legs, giving him "painful and serious abrasions and burns to his back." Later that day he was charged with assaulting a government official; he eventually pleaded guilty in exchange for time served. Despite his attorney's requests, the lawsuit alleges, the sheriff's office never turned over the surveillance video that Dunston claimed would clear him.
Following a 2011 arrest for larceny, Dunston was strip-searched by master detention officer Michael J. Hayes. According to the lawsuit, Hayes ordered the inmate to keep his mouth open for 10 minutes. When Dunston closed his mouth, Hayes yelled at Dunston, "then grabbed Dunston by his neck and flung him with great force headfirst into the concrete and brick wall," Dunston's lawsuit says. "Hayes then picked Dunston up over his head and threw him down, headfirst, into a bench."
According to the lawsuit, "Detention officers generally were not disciplined for incidents where there was not clear video evidence that fully corroborated the allegations of the injured prisoners or detainees and any non-detention officer witnesses."
The lawsuit points out that, after a 2008 incident in which detainee Eric McMillian was allegedly punched and kneed in the back while handcuffed, the sheriff's office settled his lawsuit (though it didn't admit liability).
Dunston also alleged that Hayes had twice previously assaulted detainees, once breaking an inmate's arms and another time leaving a detainee with "severe brain damage."
The defendants denied Dunston's allegations, and in March, Dunston was unable to convince a federal jury otherwise. He was slapped with $4,000 in court costs.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A vicious beating, a slap on the wrist"