BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A Louisiana sheriff and a jail warden failed to protect a prisoner from being beaten to death by a dozen other inmates last year in an attack that an eyewitness compared to a "shark feeding frenzy," a federal lawsuit claims.
Relatives of the slain 40-year-old prisoner, Tommy Joe Smith, sued Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards and the warden, Stuart Murphy, on Tuesday.
Smith, who lived in Independence, was jailed last January for a probation violation stemming from his 2015 conviction for a sex crime that isn't specified in the suit. Staff at the parish jail in Amite didn't segregate Smith from violent prisoners even though they knew his criminal history increased his risk of being attacked, the suit claims.
The sheriff and warden "acted with deliberate indifference" in failing to adequately monitor inmates, provide secure cells or properly identify and provide secure housing for "at-risk inmates," the suit alleges.
At night, the suit claims, inmates were free to move between cells. The suit says 12 inmates attacked Smith about 1:45 a.m. on Jan. 31, 2017, shortly after he was confined in a two-tier dormitory housing roughly 21 inmates.
The sheriff's office said in a statement last year that jail staff members regained control of the dormitory "within minutes" of the attack.
"Unfortunately, due to the number of individuals involved in the altercation, along with the incident occurring within a secured environment, our victim was limited with an escape," Edwards said in the release. "This type of environment provides many limitations when taking into account the safety of staff, emergency medical responders, as well as the inmates themselves."
A coroner concluded Smith died of blunt force trauma to the head with bleeding in his brain.
"Smith's family was advised by the funeral home that due to the extent and severity of the damage to Smith's head, an open casket would not be possible," the suit says.
In May, a grand jury indicted 11 men and one juvenile on manslaughter charges in Smith's death. A spokeswoman for District Attorney Scott Perrilloux said those charges are still pending against all 12 defendants.
Edwards, whose brother is Gov. John Bel Edwards, was first elected sheriff in 2003. Dawn Panepinto, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's office, said neither the sheriff nor his office comment on pending litigation.
The suit, filed in the Eastern District of Louisiana, seeks unspecified damages. A great-grandmother and mother of Smith's two children are named as plaintiffs.