RIDGELAND, Miss. — Relatives of a Mississippi man found mentally incompetent to stand trial have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit over his 11-year detention in a county jail, a legal action that comes as officials across Mississippi struggle to get mentally ill inmates out of jail and into treatment.
The sister-in-law of Steven Jessie Harris filed a lawsuit Tuesday demanding at least $11 million for the years he spent in the Clay County jail. The suit accuses Clay County, two sheriffs, a former district attorney and three state court judges of violating Harris’ rights.
“Mentally ill people are citizens just like the rest of us,” attorney Carlos Moore said at a Wednesday news conference announcing the lawsuit in the Jackson suburb of Ridgeland. “And they deserve their day in court. And if they cannot have their day in court because they are mentally incompetent, they deserve to get the medical and mental treatment that they need.”
Harris, now 37, was arrested in 2005 on charges including murder, kidnapping, and aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer. Police said Harris shot and killed his father at their shared West Point home, then began shooting at cars with a rifle. He tried to carjack several vehicles at a drive-in restaurant, authorities said, stabbing a man and then kidnapping a female passenger in a second car.
After police chased Harris, they said he wrecked the car, jumped out and began shooting at officers, wounding three. Police said he then tried to kidnap a second person but was eventually shot.
He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2007 and found incompetent by psychiatrists in 2008, but stayed in jail until August 2017.
“The ordeal that my twin brother has experienced has traumatized my entire family,” said Steven Jeffery Harris, who said his brother now lives with him.
Harris’ lawsuit could face difficulties, in part because among its defendants it names judges and prosecutors, who are generally immune from such legal action. The sheriff and the county could be found liable, but even then, a plaintiff would have to prove that what happened was as the result of a government policy.
“Everybody had to know within 11 years,” Moore said. “This was not something hidden under a tree.”
Angela Turner-Ford, lawyer for the Clay County Board of Supervisors, declined comment Wednesday. Clay County Sheriff Eddie Scott was out of town and didn’t respond to a telephone message.
Mississippi inmates who need psychiatric evaluation often linger in jails. First, they wait three or four months to be placed in one of 15 beds at the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield, where they will be evaluated.
Then, if they’re judged mentally ill, they have to later return to the hospital while psychiatrists try to restore their competency to stand trial. Such patients stay about 10 months on average; some stay for years.
Harris went through all of those steps, was declared incompetent, but remained in jail, in part because the district attorney at the time was arguing that Harris’ condition had improved and the incompetence ruling should be reversed. New District Attorney Scott Colom moved to dismiss the case before a judge ruled on his predecessor’s request.
Complicating matters further is a Mississippi law that precludes criminal court judges from committing mentally ill people. Such an action must be taken by a non-criminal court judge.
Both this year and last, some legislators unsuccessfully proposed amending state law to expressly say chancery court judges could take over cases in which criminal charges are pending against a mentally ill person and order their commitment.
Even without the amendment, some judges already hand off cases from criminal to civil proceedings, citing state a precedent established by the state Supreme Court.