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Sheriff Giving County A Black Eye

Pendergraph still stonewalling request for beatings documents

If they didn't wear those uniforms, it would be difficult to differentiate between the thugs locked up at Mecklenburg County Jail Central and the thugs running it. As I write this, Mecklenburg County Sheriff Jim Pendergraph's legal team is once again warming a bench in a county courtroom at taxpayers' expense, likely refining whatever new strategy they've concocted to keep you from hearing Stacy Cunningham's version of how he entered Jail Central with two good eyes and came out with only one. What Cunningham has to say won't matter, but what jurors will see on a videotape if the trial gets underway will. That's why the sheriff's legal team spent so much time and energy attempting to convince a judge that the video of Cunningham being beaten by sheriff's deputies while he was being restrained didn't exist. It had supposedly disappeared somewhere in the bowels of the court system and couldn't be turned over -- and shouldn't be seen even if it were found. But then, this is the same crew that has argued over and over that the sheriff isn't responsible for what his deputies do and, amazingly, his deputies aren't, either.

One would think that after going to court for four or five of these beatings cases, the sheriff would have cleaned house if for no other reason than to protect his own political hide. Instead, most of the more than 25 deputies named in the suits remain employed by the sheriff's office.

The inmates could all be lying, of course. (Well, except the guy who went blind after he was refused treatment for his diabetes at the jail. Attorneys for the sheriff admit the man is blind because the jail refused to dispense the treatment he and his family begged for. But, they say, the statute of limitations has passed, so he can't sue them, so better luck next time.)

It's not like the inmates in question are the most credible bunch ever to file a lawsuit. And perhaps it's just a coincidence that their stories are so similar. Maybe they just made the whole thing up. That was the truth CL was trying to get at when it requested copies of complaints by prisoners against detention officers and copies of the videotapes officers are supposed to make when they remove uncooperative prisoners from their cells.

Because North Carolina law prohibits the disclosure of performance-related information about public employees, CL has requested that the sheriff turn over the written complaints with the names of officers redacted. According to NC statutes, the sheriff must cite statutes governing the release of public information if requested to explain why he won't turn over the information. A letter to CL from Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office Public Information Coordinator Julia Rush stated that "removing the names of employees complained against does not make those files and the information in them public." In that letter, the sheriff's office claimed that violating the Personnel Privacy Act is a crime, but never cited any state statute to explain why. That's because they can't. There isn't one.

As for the videotapes we requested, the sheriff's office says it can't turn those over because it "doesn't have a filing system that corresponds to that request" and, in any case, believes the videotapes aren't part of the public record. Again, Rush fails to cite a statute explaining why.

What we're trying to discern here is if there's any particular pattern of behavior that could somehow explain why inmates continue to emerge from the prison bruised, blinded and with stitches and sutures in places that can't be explained by a fall down the stairs.

Sheriff's officers frustrated with our coverage of this issue don't deny that routine beatings against restrained inmates take place at the jail. They simply feel that we've given short shrift to "their side" of the issue, and to what they have to put up with. I, for one, would be fascinated to learn what they have to put up with, what could justify beatings of this severity against inmates who've been charged with crimes but not yet convicted of them.

Since Mecklenburg County has been named in several of these lawsuits, the county commissioners should be interested, as well. This isn't one of those issues they and the sheriff will be able to brush under the rug until deputies finally kill someone. County officials might not have gotten around to mentioning this to commissioners, but the Cunningham case is only one of at least three on track to be heard in court this year, and frankly, the footage involved in two of those cases can be counted on to spark the interest of the media.

So which is it, county commissioners? Protect a sheriff who hides behind lawyers, spokespeople, and state statutes designed to protect his employees? Or wait until he's tied like a stone around your necks?

If you're still having trouble deciding what to do about what's going on in our county jail, try calling up Wilmington, NC officials and ask them how easy it is to explain the death of a beating victim at the county jail.

That way, when the time comes, you and the sheriff will know just what to say.

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