RIDGELAND, Miss. — Relatives of a man who died in a Mississippi jail last May filed a civil lawsuit Tuesday, saying witnesses saw jail guards beat the man before his death.
The suit was filed in federal court in Jackson by Betty Hill, the mother of the late Harvey Hill. The 36-year-old died in the Madison County jail on May 6 after he was arrested for trespassing.
No cause of death has ever been confirmed for Hill. Madison County Coroner Alex Breeland said the state medical examiner has yet to return a final autopsy report. Mississippi’s crime lab has a monthslong backlog because of a shortage of pathologists to complete autopsies.
“I’ve made no comment on his cause of death,” Breeland said. “I’ve been very careful not to, because I don’t know.”
Lawyers alleged Tuesday that inmates got into a fight during a meal and that a guard, in trying to stop the fight, assaulted Hill. The lawsuit alleges that a guard felt Hill didn’t show proper respect and so a group of guards “resolved to teach him and other inmates at the detention center that the jailers were in charge.”
Lawyer Derek Sells said a group of guards later removed Hill from his cell, put him in handcuffs, beat him and pepper-sprayed him.
“And then he was put back in his cell, in obvious need of medical care, and left to die,” Sells said.
Sells said lawyers had multiple witnesses who had provided information about Hill.
Madison County sheriff’s spokesman Heath Hall declined comment when asked what happened, saying county lawyers haven’t seen the lawsuit. Sells and lawyer Carlos Moore said the county was earlier presented with a claim notice warning of the lawsuit.
Hill’s relatives said they felt he had been murdered and they wanted justice.
“He was a good person and he didn’t deserve any of what happened to him on that day,” sister Cassandra Hill said.
Assistant District Attorney Greg Miles said the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation hasn’t yet finished a probe of Harvey Hill’s death. Miles said that the when the probe is finished, findings will be presented to a grand jury.
Moore said an assistant U.S. attorney had told him the FBI was investigating. U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst said a prosecutor and investigator met with Moore, but “at no time” did anyone from the U.S. attorney’s office tell Moore that federal officials were investigating.
“We will neither confirm nor deny any open investigations,” Hurst said in a statement.
The lawyers declined to say how much in damages they felt would be appropriate for Hill’s death.
Moore said his law firm is also representing family members of two other people who died in the Madison County jail in recent months.