Crime & Courts

Charlotte murderer is going to prison for life; will he serve it in solitary?

Charlotte murderer Jamell Cureton will soon begin serving multiple life sentences. He’s been held in solitary confinement for more than two years, and his attorneys want a rare, highly punitive detention status lifted before Cureton goes away to prison
Charlotte murderer Jamell Cureton will soon begin serving multiple life sentences. He’s been held in solitary confinement for more than two years, and his attorneys want a rare, highly punitive detention status lifted before Cureton goes away to prison Observer staff

Confessed Charlotte gang leader and triple murderer Jamell Cureton already has begun serving eight life sentences. Now, under an extremely rare government designation, he could spend the rest of his days in solitary confinement.

The government’s bureaucratic description of Cureton’s status – “special administrative measures, or SAM” – belies the fact that it a highly restrictive form of detention generally reserved for accused or convicted terrorists, or inmates whom the government believes still threaten the safety of the public or other prisoners.

Cureton, who was sentenced last week for the 2014 killings of Doug and Debbie London and the unrelated 2013 fatal shooting of a homeless teenager, has been held in solitary confinement for more than two years.

Because of his unusual status, his access to jailers and fellow prisoners has all but been eliminated. His opportunities to talk to his family have been cut far below that of a normal inmate. Even dealings with his attorneys, normally protected under law, are monitored.

While thousands of federal and state inmates across the country are kept in solitary confinement for at least part of their sentences, only a fraction of the prison population lives under the more restrictive federal rules. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has almost 189,000 inmates. Only 48 are kept under SAMs.

Cureton has been detained under the provisions for at least 14 months. Under law, the classification can be requested by the U.S. attorney general when there is “a substantial risk that a prisoner’s communications or contacts with persons could result in death or serious bodily injury.”

Cureton’s prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Don Gast, said at the gang leader’s sentencing hearing last week that the solitary confinement and other restrictions placed on Cureton were needed because the gang leader had helped plan the murders of the Londons from inside the Mecklenburg jail. He also acknowledged that Cureton’s case is the first one with SAM provisions he had handled during his 15 years as a federal prosecutor.

Cureton’s court-appointed defense team continues to argue that Cureton’s circumstances have changed to the extent that he no longer needs or deserves the extra restrictions. Attorneys Rick Winiker and Christopher Adams say their client’s guilty plea to the murders and other federal charges indicates he has taken responsibility for his actions, shown remorse, and that he is no longer a threat to other inmates or the public.

They also have asked a federal judge to lift Cureton’s designation before he is assigned to a federal prison and begins serving the rest of his life behind bars – perhaps in a cell by himself.

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Jamell Cureton, who helped plan the murders of Doug and Debbie London from his jail cell, arrives at federal court in 2015. The Charlotte gang leaders has been held in solitary confinement for more than two years. Under a little known federal provision, his isolation may be extended indefinitely. Davie Hinshaw dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Winiker says understands his client is not a sympathetic figure.

“But the question is this: Are there going to be standards in our country for how prisoners should be treated, including prisoners who have committed murder?” Winiker said. “This is not the normal treatment, even for a prisoner who commits a heinous act.”

The SAM provisions, which became part of U.S. law the month after the 9-11 attacks, were initially designed to isolate suspected or convicted terrorists. In recent years, as gang violence within prisons has increased, the measures have been used to isolate group leaders from conspiring with members inside and outside prison walls. Among those now kept under the restrictions: Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The Justice Department is supposed to review the designation annually.

Legal critics and prisoner rights group say the restrictions place inmates under a veritable lock-down, limiting their access to mail, phone calls, exercise, religious activities and family visits.

Prolonged isolation under these conditions, they say, can lead to physical and emotional ailments among prisoners. The National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms describes the use of the procedures as “an affront to American values of civil rights and humane treatment.” The United Nations says solitary confinement for more than two weeks can cause profound psychological damage and has equated it to torture.

Which brings us back to Cureton.

He was among the three United Blood Nation members who tried to rob the Londons’ mattress store in Pineville on May 2014. Doug London shot him during the robbery attempt, and Cureton has been in custody since his hospital release.

Later that year, Cureton helped plan the October 2014 killings of the couple. According to court documents, Cureton sent a letter from jail with the Londons’ home address to fellow gang member Malcolm Hartley, a letter Hartley had with him the night he shot and killed the pair at their home.

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Jamell Cureton, who plotted the murders of Doug and Debbie London, has been held in solitary confinement for more than two years. Under a little-known federal law, his isolation may be extended indefinitely.

Three months later, two judges and the Charlotte city attorney were placed under armed guard for about a week after a Jan. 12, 2015, FBI raid of Cureton’s cell uncovered what was believed at the time to be potential threats to the three officials.

Cureton was placed in solitary confinement that day. In April 2015, following an FBI investigation, he was among a dozen UBN members indicted for the London killings and other crimes. Last year, he pleaded guilty to 10 federal offenses, including three counts of murder, to avoid a possible death penalty.

In February 2016 – more than a year after Cureton’s attorneys say their client was first put in solitary confinement – then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch placed Cureton under SAM provisions. The designation came at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte, an office spokeswoman confirmed to the Observer. Two months ago, while Winiker and Adams were trying to get prosecutors to drop Cureton’s designation, it was quietly renewed by the Justice Department for another year.

Last week, Winiker and Adams told U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn that they do not believe Cureton’s status is being fairly reviewed. In an interview, Winiker said Cureton and his fellow gang members, though guilty of murder and other serious crimes, were also “relatively amateurish,” and never posed the threat to the public that prosecutors alleged.

In an interview with the Observer, Winiker put it this way: “This is not the KGB.”

Cogburn, though, left Cureton’s designation as it is for now, saying he did not have the authority to override a decision by the executive branch of government unless a clear constitutional violation occurred.

A Bureau of Prisons spokesman said Friday that the Justice Department determines Cureton’s status and that prison officials lack the authority to change it. Cureton’s special designation will be one of a series of criteria prison officials will use to determine where he will begin serving his sentence, the spokesman said.

In an affidavit included in his lawyers’ request for a court order, Cureton says he lives in a Mecklenburg jail cell that’s 9 feet by 6 feet, with a single window high on the wall. He has access to a small day room, but has no real contact with his jailers or other inmates. He says he’s allowed four phone conversations a month with close family members and that he has no access to psychological care.

Curenton has begun writing fiction behind bars. He says he has noticed that he has begun talking to himself.

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