Jessica Lynn Martin and Kelly Ann Green died within a year of each other after being booked in North Carolina jails. They were young women with serious health issues, and their families claimed that negligence in the jails contributed to their deaths.
Officials in Haywood and Stanly counties agreed to pay settlements to their families.
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And in both cases, state Superior Court judges agreed to prohibit the public from finding out if any public money was paid to the inmates’ families. One judge initially didn’t follow the law on explaining his ruling, while the other judge made a finding as required by law but didn’t explain his order.
Generally, the details of settlements involving state and local governments are public record. The law does allow for an exception, but only after a judge has issued a written order that concludes “the presumption of openness is overcome by an overriding interest” that “cannot be protected by any measure short of sealing the settlement.”
The order is required to spell out the reasons for keeping the settlement private and provide specific facts that would allow judges reviewing the order to determine whether it was proper.
In the case of Green, Judge Craig Croom’s order found that the settlement wasn’t a public record and that the parties’ interest of privacy overrode the presumption of openness. In the case of Martin, Judge Bradley Letts even sealed his order that sealed the settlement.
There was no admission of culpability by the counties in either settlement.
After The News & Observer cited the need for an explanation under the law, Letts revisited the Haywood case and came up with a new justification. He ruled the terms should stay secret because the section of the jail where Martin was treated meets the definition of a “hospital facility,” which is protected under the law from disclosing medical malpractice settlements.
Jonathan Jones, a former prosecutor in Durham who leads the N.C. Open Government Coalition and Sunshine Center at Elon University, said both cases are “incredibly disappointing” examples of judges keeping the public in the dark.
“We’re talking about spending taxpayer dollars on claims of wrongdoing by the government, and often these are settled without an admission of guilt,” Jones said. “But even though there’s no admission of guilt or responsibility, there’s a transfer of funds, and citizens need to know whether or not their government bodies are being good stewards of their tax dollars.”
Dying outside the jail
Martin, 20, died in 2011 after spending five days in the Haywood County jail in Waynesville, west of Asheville. She had been arrested on a probation violation tied to a misdemeanor charge of possession of drug paraphernalia.
Green, 28, died in 2010 after spending a night in the Stanly County jail in Albemarle, east of Charlotte, on a felony charge of obtaining property by false pretense and misdemeanor traffic offenses.
Both Martin and Green had been transported to a nearby hospital shortly before their deaths. They are among 309 jail inmates in North Carolina who have died in the past 11 years, a News & Observer analysis of federal, state and local records shows.
North Carolina requires jails to file a report of an inmate death to the state Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees jail safety and security regulations. Those regulations include making sure inmates are checked to see if they are OK.
But the law only requires a report for deaths inside the jail. Martin and Green were still alive when they made it to the hospital, where they died within hours. DHHS had no report for either death; a Haywood official said none was sent because Martin was in the process of being released, while a Stanly official offered no explanation.
The News & Observer learned about both cases by requesting that sheriffs across the state identify inmates whose deaths during the past 11 years had resulted in settlements or court awards. The request helped identify 21 other settlements totaling more than $3 million. Roughly a third of the sheriffs didn’t respond to the request.
Sealing the case, twice
Martin’s family filed a lawsuit after her death. It alleged she had complained of not feeling well when she was booked and that she didn’t get proper care.
Five days later, Martin was found unconscious and struggling to breathe shortly after she had been checked, the lawsuit says. She was in a holding area of the courthouse, in the process of being released. She was rushed to the hospital, where she died.
An autopsy found the cause was sepsis, where the body’s immune system goes into overdrive to respond to an infection. In Martin’s case, it was an acute bacterial pneumonia.
Letts, a Superior Court judge based in Waynesville, was assigned the lawsuit. He has served on the bench since 2009 after eight years as a District Court judge. Letts signed the Haywood County order in 2012.
He said in a phone message on March 13 of this year to The N&O that he would revisit the case after a reporter pointed to the lack of a detailed explanation for keeping the settlement closed.
“I’m going to be setting a hearing to determine whether the matter should remain sealed,” Letts said. “I will get a copy of that notice of hearing for you, or rather to you, as soon as I can.”
A month later, Letts conducted a hearing. The N&O received no notice. He later issued a second order backing his earlier decision by citing the law allowing medical malpractice settlements to be sealed.
Jones, of the Sunshine Center, said Letts may be technically correct in citing the medical malpractice law to keep a settlement closed. But he doubted lawmakers intended for it to be used to close off information on payments in inmate death settlements.
“That’s not what the legislature was intending when they put that medical malpractice exemption in there,” Jones said. “They were trying to protect things like Carolinas Health Care system, Cone Health, WakeMed, the publicly run hospital systems.”
Shrouding a judge’s name
When she was booked at the Stanly County jail in 2010, Green told staffers she depended on insulin to treat her diabetes, state medical examiner records show.
She asked for her blood sugar to be tested. It was high, but no one gave her insulin. She spent the night restless and groaning, and refused breakfast. Shortly after 8 a.m., she became unresponsive and was rushed to the hospital, where she suffered cardiac arrest and died.
No lawsuit was filed, but her family made a wrongful death claim against Stanly County and the jail. The parties reached a settlement in December 2012.
For a time, even the name of the judge who signed the secrecy order was a secret. The judge’s signature on the order was unreadable, so The N&O asked Jennifer Furr, the county attorney, to identify the judge.
“This request also seems to be for information rather than records, & a local government has no obligation to create records, compile information, or search for unidentified records in response to an information/records request,” Furr responded in an email.
A Stanly County court clerk later identified Craig Croom as the state Superior Court judge. Croom, now a District Court judge in Wake County, at the time had been appointed by Gov. Bev Perdue and heard cases around the state. He said he had little recollection of his order.
In an interview, Croom said he signed it because “all the parties consented.”
He also said he can’t revisit it because he’s no longer a Superior Court judge. The current resident Superior Court judge in Stanly County, Kevin Bridges, did not respond to an N&O request to discuss Croom’s order.
Hurdles for lawsuits
State law erects a hurdle for the families of jailed inmates who want to file lawsuits. The law provides government immunity to entities such as county governments and sheriff’s departments, and individual immunity to public officials such as detention officers.
As result, those who allege basic negligence are often limited to a liability insurance or bond payout. Many of the settlements in North Carolina jails over the years reflect those limits, with payouts in the range of $10,000 to $30,000.
Trey Allen and Jamie Markham, two UNC-Chapel Hill professors with the School of Government, said deliberate indifference to an inmate’s health or excessive force by a detention officer could lead to constitutional claims that allow a case to get over the immunity hurdle and potentially larger settlements or court awards.
Many of the larger settlements over the past decade, such as the $150,000 paid to Wake inmate Shon McClain’s family, came from deaths involving excessive force.
Mentally ill and drug-addicted inmates are making it more difficult for jailers to keep inmates safe. What can be done to make jails safer?
No public video?
When state lawmakers passed a new law in 2016 regulating the release of police videos, the focus was on videos shot on patrol with body cams and dashboard cams.
But the law, which took effect Oct. 1, covered “law enforcement” videos, making them secret unless released by a judge’s court order. Officials in two counties cited that law recently in not providing videos showing how inmates were treated in their final hours.
Carteret County Sheriff Asa Buck, in response to a request related to the death of inmate Patrick O’Malley, said he checked with the attorney for the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association before declining the request.
“(H)e concurs that I would not be able to release any video for a request made on or after October 1, 2016,” Buck said. “This language is written in the legislation. This applies to all videos regardless of the dates of the incidents.”
Two months before the passage of the new law, The News & Observer had reported on a 2011 death in the Harnett County jail as a result of an inmate being shot three times with a Taser. The Harnett County Sheriff’s Office released video of the death in response to an N&O public records request.
Jail officials claimed the inmate displayed threatening behavior before they took action. The video showed no aggressive behavior. The N&O made the video public and reported on the case, one of several Harnett incidents that prompted a federal investigation. The investigation is ongoing.
Sunday: Left alone to die
Monday: No report necessary
Tuesday: Who gets punished?
Wednesday: Housing the mentally ill
Today: Some courts keep secrets
About the reporters
Dan Kane, 56, has been a reporter at The News & Observer since 1997, covering city, higher education and state government beats before joining the investigative team in 2009. Since 2011, he has broken dozens of stories about the UNC-Chapel Hill athletic and academic scandal, winning state and national recognition. He first reported on jail deaths in Wake County in 2012.
David Raynor, 47, joined The N&O in 1992 and now works as database editor, acquiring, analyzing and maintaining public records. His work has included the award-winning series “Prognosis: Profits,” which revealed nonprofit hospitals’ role in high medical costs, and the more recent “Counted Out,” which showed how high-scoring low-income children were being excluded from gifted classes in the state’s public schools.