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World News

Mississippi state, federal lawmakers seek inquiry after Reuters report of jail beating death

(Reuters) - A Mississippi legislator and veteran Congressman are seeking criminal charges after Reuters exposed previously unreported details in the 2018 death of inmate Harvey Hill at the Madison County Detention Center.

FILE PHOTO: An exterior view of the Madison County Detention Center in Canton, Mississippi, September 14, 2020. REUTERS/Linda So/File Photo

The 36-year-old died in May 2018 after a violent altercation with guards. His family believes he was suffering an emotional breakdown when he lashed out, striking a guard with a lunch tray. Guards kicked and punched Hill, then slammed him into a concrete wall, previously unpublished jail surveillance video obtained by Reuters showed.

They led him to a shower, away from the cameras, and beat him again, still handcuffed, a state investigation found. Hill was taken to an isolation cell and later died. An autopsy ruled the death a homicide.

“If they have evidence that shows this was a murder, they need to charge those individuals,” said Democratic state lawmaker Chris Bell. “I just don’t understand what’s the holdup.”

State authorities have been investigating Hill’s death, but no one has been charged. The guards say Hill was combative and their response justified under the jail’s use-of-force policy.

The Hill family attorney, Carlos Moore, said the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division has been examining the circumstances of the death. Reached for comment, a spokesperson told Reuters: “DOJ does not comment on ongoing investigations.”

The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation investigated the death in 2018, but the district attorney has taken no formal action. Neither the bureau nor the district attorney responded to Reuters requests for comment.

Representative Bell said he is “at a loss for words” why no charges have come. “There needs to be something done immediately,” he said.

Calls for action are also coming from Capitol Hill. Democratic U.S. Representative Bennie Thompson, the senior member of Mississippi’s congressional delegation, reviewed Reuters’ findings on inmate deaths, including Hill’s. “Justice demands that Harvey Hill’s murderers be charged and held accountable,” Thompson said.

The Reuters investigation into Hill’s death was part of a larger examination that exposed how thousands of people are dying in America’s jails before getting their day in court. Many, like Hill, arrested on a trespassing charge, were held on minor charges.

To read the full investigation, Dying Inside, click here

As part of its nationwide examination, Reuters found 58 people died among 11 large Mississippi jails over more than a decade. Of those, at least 39 were not convicted of the charges they faced. Seven of the inmate deaths were ruled a homicide.

Mississippi is among 17 states with no official standards or oversight mechanisms for local jails, Reuters found.

“Anytime there is a death or murder or police brutality, transparency is a must,” said Corey Wiggins, executive director of the Mississippi chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “In this case, you had someone who was essentially killed while in custody. It’s why criminal justice has to be reformed.”

Wiggins said he will use Hill’s death to draw attention to systemic problems in local jails and will work with state and local leaders to enact reforms.

Hill’s family has also been pressing for legal action. “If nothing is done about them killing him, then it could happen to someone else,” said Cassandra Hill, his younger sister.

A wrongful death lawsuit filed by Hill’s family has settled with the sheriff’s department and the jail’s medical contractor, Quality Correctional Health Care, said a person with knowledge of the matter. The sheriff and the company did not respond to requests for comment about the settlement.

Reporting by Linda So. Additional reporting by Jason Szep and Peter Eisler. Editing by Ronnie Greene

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