A brutal death in an NC jail leads to a six-figure settlement. What went wrong?

Cleveland County officials have agreed to pay $347,500 to the family of an inmate who was beaten and asphyxiated two years ago in a jail holding cell that jailers couldn’t see into.

Jeffery Todd Dunn, 37, died on April 1, 2019, after a confrontation with another inmate in the cell. That man, Kenneth Eric Darby, is charged with Dunn’s murder.

A state Department of Health and Human Services investigation found that jailers had checked on Dunn and Darby, 41, only once in the two hours prior to Dunn being discovered dead. State regulations require jailers to check on inmates at least twice an hour.

Dunn’s mother filed a lawsuit in February charging that jailers knew both men were violent and unstable but ignored them after placing them in a cell with a window so badly cracked it blocked their view. Defendants included Cleveland County, Sheriff Alan Norman and several current and former employees who were working when Dunn died.

Jeffrey Schwartz, a national expert on jail safety, told The News & Observer in February that if the claims in the lawsuit are true, they suggest jailers’ “sort of setting up a gladiators school, and then walking away from it.”

Cleveland County Manager Brian Epley and Deputy County Attorney Martha Thompson confirmed the settlement and the amount to be paid. It does not require Norman or current and former employees to admit liability, they said.

“First and foremost, the entire situation is incredibly unfortunate,” Epley said. “Nobody wants to be in a situation where we’re talking about someone who lost their lives, and that’s obviously what happened.”

Norman could not be reached by email or phone. Luke Largess, a Charlotte attorney representing Dunn’s mother, Freida Winters, said they agreed not to talk about the case as part of its settlement.

Epley and Thompson said they would not release the settlement agreement until it is recorded in the minutes of the next county commissioners board meeting on Oct. 19. The commissioners had approved it in a closed session several weeks ago, they said.

Approval of meeting minutes isn’t required to release a lawsuit settlement, which is a public record under state law, said Brooks Fuller, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at Elon University.

“If there is a signed and executed settlement agreement, it’s a public record and must be produced,” he said.

The settlement is the second in less than three years in which Cleveland County has paid more than $300,000 to resolve a lawsuit alleging liability in an inmate’s death. In 2019, the county paid $303,000 to the family of Archie McNeilly Jr., 40, who died of renal failure in 2015.

A state DHHS investigation into his death found at one point he had gone unchecked by jail staff for more than two hours. Largess had also represented his family.

The amount of money the county has paid out should trigger more corrective action for the jail, said Susan Pollitt, a senior attorney for Disability Rights North Carolina. The nonprofit assists people with mental and physical disabilities; jails often have significant numbers of inmates struggling with mental illness.

“You would hope that they would have the foresight to spend some resources to make their jail safer going forward,” she said.

In a response to state investigators, Sheriff Norman’s office said the jail was putting in place a new system to track detention officers’ inmate checks

Dunn was among 46 North Carolina inmates in 2019 who died in jails or in a hospital after becoming ill or injured behind bars. That was a record high number since the state began tracking these deaths in the 1990s.

The number of these deaths was even higher last year, with at least 49 jail inmate deaths recorded.

Jail inmate deaths have been trending upward for several years. State lawmakers have held hearings about the rising toll, but have not passed significant reforms. House Speaker Tim Moore, who also serves as Cleveland County’s attorney, has not responded to a reporter’s emailed questions about Dunn’s death.

Jail deaths often lead to lawsuits that result in settlement payments to inmates’ families. Those agreements occasionally include required changes in jail management. That was the case after a 17-year-old hanged herself in the Durham County jail in 2017.

That settlement, which paid her family $650,000, required the jail to remove suicide hazards by the end of 2019 and to stop housing inmates under 18 with adults.