Mecklenburg County Commissioners made former county jail inmate, Paul Midgett, and his lawyers $110,000 richer Thursday when they voted to settle with him rather than go to court.
In his lawsuit, Midgett said he was severely beaten by Mecklenburg County sheriff's deputies in May 2000. County commissioners voted 8 to 1 in a closed session to settle with Midgett. Republican Bill James was the only commissioner to vote against the settlement. Midgett is serving a life sentence for bank robbery and for pouring gasoline on a bank teller and attempting to set him on fire.
Sources say that in the closed-session meeting, county officials encouraged commissioners to settle because it would be much cheaper than fighting the case in court. Negative publicity may also have been a factor. The sheriff and his deputies, who run the jail, have faced numerous lawsuits in recent years. Two years ago, a video of deputies beating and stomping on inmate Stacy Cunningham made national television news. Pictures of Midgett with severe bruising on his face may have gotten the same attention if a trial went forward.
In federal court, the defense claimed Midgett was angry that he had not received the medication he takes for epilepsy and attacked a deputy. He received the extensive bruising on his face while detention officers tried to subdue him, the defense said.
In Midgett's version of the story, he was beaten because he had filed a written complaint against an officer whom he believed had denied him his medication.
Midgett claimed he was handcuffed, picked up by his feet and the scruff of his neck and dropped from a height of four feet. After that, he said, he was kicked and stomped by detention officers who left him in a pool of his own blood.
After seeing the severity of Paul Midgett's injuries from the beating, his father George Midgett feared that detention officers at the jail might do his son, who was a federal prisoner, further harm if he were held there before scheduled court appearances. In a series of memos faxed to his son's attorneys between August and October of 2000, George Midgett wrote, "under no circumstances should Paul be held over at the Meck. County Jail because they would probably kill him." In another memo written after it appeared that Midgett would be moved to Charlotte temporarily for a legal proceeding, George Midgett wrote, "This reference to being moved to Charlotte frightens Paul and scares Loretta and me. There is just no way that Paul can be kept, even for a few hours, in either of the two Mecklenburg County jails."
Last year, a federal judge saw things differently, and threw out the charges against two detention officers for allegedly beating Midgett. The judge ruled that the prosecution didn't prove the officers had intended to violate Midgett's civil rights.
"With the dismissal of criminal charges in federal court, I believe we made our point that these officers did nothing wrong in dealing with Mr. Midgett," said Sheriff Jim Pendergraph. "Unfortunately, Mr. Midgett had also filed a civil case over this incident. I believe it is in the best interest of the taxpayers to bring this case to a close. Settling with Mr. Midgett's attorneys will ultimately save the county a considerable amount of money."
Creative Loafing first documented the pattern of alleged beatings at the jail in an April 2003 story.
The payout marks yet another twist in the sheriff's ongoing legal battles with inmates. In each case, the sheriff has maintained his deputies' innocence. Recent legal battles have included:
•In February, a federal jury agreed that Dwight Cole had been beaten by sheriff's deputies in 2001 and awarded him $75,000. Cole was in jail on charges of assault against a female that were later dismissed. He claimed he was held down and beaten for urinating into the drain of a holding cell after deputies refused to let him out to use the bathroom. Cole said deputies then strapped him into a restraining chair and denied him water for hours. He eventually removed his belt and faked a suicide attempt, which landed him at Mecklenburg County Mental Health. As a deputy escorted him through the lobby, he pulled Cole back from a water fountain and wouldn't let him drink, Cole claimed.
After he explained to the doctor that he wasn't suicidal and just wanted a drink of water, Cole was returned to the jail, where he claimed he was beaten two more times before he was released.
•Last year, a federal jury ruled that Cabarrus County land developer Jerry Philip Ritchie Jr. wasn't beaten by sheriff's deputies after he was arrested and charged with driving while impaired in 2001.
•In August 2003, a jury awarded Stacy Cunningham $49,500 after deputies were caught beating him on videotape. Cunningham, who had allegedly resisted deputies, was handcuffed face down on the floor when he was stomped on and partially blinded by a kick to the eye from Deputy James Riley.