Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Family suspicious about grandson's jail death
Lee Demond Smith's family questions the official story about how he died in jail.
Often, one story leads to another. And that's just what happened in this case.

I got a call in April from a family in Biloxi, Mississippi, whose home had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, I'd reported on their plight and the good Samaritan who rebuilt their home.

But this call was different. The family's only grandson, 21-year-old Lee Demond Smith, had died in December while being held on a parole violation in the Harrison County Jail in Gulfport, Mississippi. The county autopsy said his death was from natural causes, a "massive recent pulmonary embolism," a blood clot in the lungs.

The family, though, was reluctant to accept that finding. Lee had never before had any health problems. And they learned of his death by getting calls from the families of other inmates at the jail. The jail itself denied for hours that anything was wrong. Family members weren't allowed to see Lee's body until the day he was buried.

But most disturbing were the stories the family had long heard about inmates being beaten by guards. So the local community rallied around them, raising $9,000 to ship Lee's body to Nebraska for a second autopsy.

The Smith family contacted me after the results came back. Forensic pathologist Dr. Mathias Okoye found that Lee had been strangled. The precise cause of death was "asphyxia due to neck compression and physical restraint while in police custody." Okoye was particularly shocked to find Lee's lungs had never been dissected. Both Okoye and another forensic pathologist we interviewed agree that is the only way to confirm a blood clot in the lung as a cause of death.

Still, the county stands by its original autopsy, though it refused to release its autopsy photos to CNN. (Hear Smith's family talk about their suspicions)

We also traced the troubled history of the Harrison County Jail. Four prisoners have died due to unnatural circumstances there since 2002. One of them was beaten to death in February 2006 in front of cameras in the jail's booking room.

Four guards go on trial next month accused of his murder.

Since then, four more have pleaded guilty to abusing other inmates. We got an exclusive interview with one of those jailers, Preston Wills.

Wills calmly told us how from his first day he was taught to keep order in the jail by abusing prisoners. I was stunned to hear his matter-of-fact descriptions of the brutality that he says was condoned and encouraged by his superiors. Wills says the term was: "make 'em understand."

We were fortunate to find former inmates who willing to come forward and talk about what they'd been through.

It's important to remember that this is just a county jail. This is not a maximum security prison packed with murderers and rapists. Many people are brought there for misdemeanors, crimes like public drunkenness or unpaid parking tickets.

Two prisoners we interviewed were both in jail overnight. One says guards pummeled him, slammed him into a concrete wall and ripped his shoulder out of its socket. The other says he was beaten, strapped so tightly into a restraining chair that he had nerve damage, and then had a sheet pulled over his face and water poured on it until he couldn't breathe. When he finally went to the hospital days after his release, he says doctors found he was suffering from near-fatal kidney failure.

The county denies any wrongdoing in the Smith case and in the other cases of alleged abuse we reveal in our reports.

Despite initially agreeing to an on-camera interview, Sheriff George Payne changed his mind once he learned the Smith family had gotten the results of the second autopsy.

Instead, he released a statement saying, "I in no manner or form condone or encourage the use of excessive force by any individual employed by the Harrison County Sheriff's Department. As always, in the event that I become aware of suoh allegations, the incident is thoroughly investigated and reported to the proper investigatory entity."

Initially, Harrison County authorities planned to investigate Lee Demond Smith's death themselves. But Smith's family believed it would not be a fair investigation. So three weeks into CNN's investigation, the local district attorney asked the U.S. Justice Department to take over the case.

After the three-plus months CNN has investigated this case, I'd like to believe our reporting will force change at the jail. But I'm not optimistic.

-- By Kathleen Koch, CNN Correspondent
Posted By CNN: 6:23 PM ET
  27 Comments
And this is only one jail among so many where prisoner abuse is commonplace.

Whether in war or in this type of jail situation, when those in authority are encouraged to think of others as less than human, there will be extreme abuse.

I also hope your CNN investigation will lead to some positive changes but like you, I'm not optimistic. At most, there will be temporary changes until the light of the media moves on to another problem. Then it will be back to normal at this jail.
Posted By Joseph Kowalski, North Huntingdon, PA : 6:40 PM ET
The problem with not only the cops, but the government in our state, and nationally, is the fact they abuse the power they have over citizens, and that it is used for their own amusement. That jail is at least 3-to-a-cell; and it will continue to grow because they arrest only people for the little things that could be solved in the courtroom.

Why haven't they arrested the car thieves? Why haven't they arrested the robbers who break into the local stores? Why is there still drug users on my street that consistently roam during the night? Because the cops are too lazy, and instead are flashing their lights for doughnuts at Krispy Kreme on Highway 49.
Posted By James (Gulfport, MS) : 7:49 PM ET
Kathleen:
From what I have observed as a returning volunteer in the hurricane recovery efforts in Gulfport, Mississippi, there is a "fear factor" within the community whether it is with the police department or local government.

After Hurricane Katrina, the residents felt abandoned not only by the rest of the country but also by local officials. For the residents to presume something other than neglect and lack of police support would be, well, unexpected.

Luckily, you and CNN were able to give one family a voice to protest the inhumanity of one local law enforcement system.

I also understand your last statement, "But I am not optimistic." Change happened slowly before the hurricane. Now it's about living day to day and surviving; actually seeing justice is not assumed.

Looking forward to seeing your report.

I will be returning to Gulfport and Biloxi this November as a Katrina volunteer. After two years, there is still plenty to help rebuild in the Gulf and New Orleans.
Posted By Sharon, Indianapolis, Indiana : 8:08 PM ET
I'm glad you're covering this story. I had heard about it before. It's just scary that in the South these things happen in the 21st century. I loved living in MS when I was there. I'd move back in a second if the right opportunity came up. It's just a shame that hatred still exists and is allowed in an otherwise wonderful area and state. Keep on them. Thanks for staying in touch with Mississippi (even if it's to keep them honest). Maybe one day skin color won't matter and people will be treated with the respect and care they deserve simply because they are humans who share our planet. So I'm a little PollyAnnaish...
Posted By Tammy C., Berwick, LA : 9:14 PM ET
Wow, between this report and the report the other night on the dog fighting, I'm speechless! This is just simply unbelievable.

Looking forward to seeing the report tonight.
Posted By Jolene, St. Joseph, MI : 9:18 PM ET
This report that aired tonight was absolutely horrific. Thank you, CNN, for the investigation. I'm sure terrible things go on in jails all over the world, but somehow we expect Americans to behave in a more "civilized" fashion. Instead this looks like another Abu Ghraib.
Posted By Barbara, Culver City, CA : 11:37 PM ET
Your report about the Harrison Co. jail problem tonight was very upsetting to mefor 2 reasons. The first of course is because horrible things like this should not be happining here or anywhere. The second goes just as deep. Anderson you were down here during Katrina and you saw the total devastation in our state and yet you keep covering New Orleans lack of recovery and not Mississippi's recovery. You've told and shown how the US Gov. has been so slow to help N.O. but you've never mentioned that MS was in the same boat(so to speak but not now). Maybe this is because Mississippians pulled up their own boot straps and helped themselves and didn't wait for others to do it for them. Don't get me wrong we've had so many great volunteers from all over come to help us and we are very gratefull to them all.
There was something going on while you were here, in the days after Katrina, that you may not have known about. All our roads going south were totaly blocked by fallen tree, as far as 150 mi. north to where I live. we had winds of 100 mph this far north. As soon as the winds died down our lunber men out with their own equipment clearing the roads (NOBODY HAD TO ASK THEM)so the MS Guard could get to the coast. Our Guard doesn't have helicopters only lg. supply type plans so the roads were the only way down. There were many other things like the ice the US Gov was holding at Camp Shelby that was deaperately needed in Hattiesburg. Their sheriff had to go down and liberate it.
I guess I've vented enough but so you don't think this came from a MS native, I'm a mississippian by choise not by chance of birth. Born in Nanticoke Pa, lived in Seattle, Portland Maine, New York, Philadelphia,Charleston,Key West, Pensacola and New Orleans. MS is a great place, look it produced your father and mine and that's saying something for it.
Posted By Norma B Pearl,MS : 1:36 AM ET
Very good story. However very sad as well. My heart goes out for that young man's family, especially his mother.
Posted By Algie - London England : 10:58 AM ET
Anderson and Kathleen,

Whats happening at the Harrison County Jail is horrible. To me the most upsetting part about it is it sheds another bad light on the south. Whats happening in the jail has nothing to do with race, its a humanity issue. Unfortunately racism still exist everywhere, not just in the south. And as far as Katrina is concerned it is sad how little coverage Mississippi received during the hurricane. I'm from Mobile Alabama and was able to see the horrible damage MS received during and after the hurricane. As a state they have pulled things together and are rebuilding with out complainte. How about doing a story on how far things have come in the last two years not how slow things are moving.

Thanks for Listening!
Meagan
Posted By Meagan Alpharetta GA : 11:32 AM ET
wow! that is all i kept on saying throughout the story. i mean, i didn't know all these brutal, inhuman treatment of inmates has been going on in jails coz i have not been here (U.S) so long to learn all these. where is the democracy that we preach to the rest of the world? are we preaching something that we don't even practice ourselves in our own home? why are we trying to hold accountable the rest of the world for failing to practice and abide by democracy, when we don't? i as a college student understand this simple concept that if i want people to listen and practice what i preach or say, i have to practice first and be a good role model for them. simple as that. the other funny thing is the U.S government trying to rebuild other people's countries when their own country is in need of rebuildiing. oh, may be new orleans and missisipi are part of U.S on a map but not in some people's mind like Bush and his followers. mmm...interesting. may be Bush and people like him don't care about black people. racism? white supermacy? skin color is still a problem in U.S? i can't believe it.
Posted By Arif Awes, Minneapolis MN : 12:29 PM ET
last night as this story was unfolding on AC360 , I was thinking who are these people who can be so very brutal without any reason ,do they fall in the same human category as the rest of us......yeah I know terrorists commit even worse cruel acts but the life they lived in poverty , even though that's not an excuse to turn out to be a terrorist ,might have led them to become almost inhuman .
But these jail officers had a good American education and they enjoy all sorts of comforts of this developed world.....
Posted By Rupa , Boston : 1:36 PM ET
That is insane.
I had not heard this story, but can't help but sit here slack-jawed in front of my computer.

I can't quite decide what's worse. That this happens on a consistent basis or the sheer amount of cover-up it takes for this to able to continue to happen.
I suppose obviously the latter is worse, but the former is heartbreaking.
These are people from the same field that we trust to protect us and our loved ones when we can't do it ourselves. It's insane.

What can be done? How can this be changed? Where would we even start?
Posted By Alisha : 1:39 PM ET
Well, what can I say? Welcome to Mississippi
Posted By Bill C, Biloxi, MS : 2:10 PM ET
When I saw this report it sickened me to see the American justice system run amuck like this. It was not uncommon in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s to hear of overt brutality against people in Mississippi, but to see that it is still going on and apparantly is sactioned by some powerful people is absolutely heartbreaking.

The officers in this county jail need psychiatric evaluation. The community needs to speak out more against the abuses that are going on in this jail. The U.S. Justice Department needs to get serious about these allegations.

We are a nation of laws, and that needs to be paramount in the peoples heads in Mississippi. If they don't mayhem will break out in that jail. We can't have a criminal justice system like that.

As for the Smith family, I hope that they find peace. This is a hackneyed statement. How can you find peace when your beloved family member was killed for nothing. Life just isn't fair. I hope they continue their fight against the jail, AND I HOPE YOU STAY ON IT INTERVIEWING EVERYONE ABOUT THIS INJUSTICE SO SOME SUBSTANTIVE CHANGE CAN OCCUR THERE.
Posted By Madeliene Bolden, Atlanta, Georgia : 3:01 PM ET
Dar Kathleen and Anderson,
I can not thank you enough for the segment on the jail system in Gulfport, Ms. It is difficult for all involved, but something must be done. On a bright side, I would like to acknowledge the medical care Kasey Alves, my nephew, received here in Gulfport and D'Iberville. Had it not been for a volunteer physician at a free clinic and the doctors on staff at a Gulfport hospital, It could have been another death. Not once did they hesitate concerning his care. Sometimes doing the right thing takes courage. Thanks for having the courage to report on these cases.

Judy August
Posted By Judy August : 3:12 PM ET
Condolences to his family, but don't ya lose some of your rights when you get incarcerated? You conveniently skimmed over naming the inmate's initial crime when reporting the story. That's not being honest.
Posted By DH , Lake Barrington , IL : 3:46 PM ET
I live in Biloxi and we have lived this story for over a year and a half now. I am surprised it took this long for the story to get picked up. This is a prime example of how the 'good ol' boys' system works. However, why is it okay for a former/pleading guilty deputy to go on national tv and play the poor pitiful me card? That deputy acted like he did not know what he was doing was wrong. We learn very early that hitting and beating someone to a pulp is wrong. He knew his actions were wrong but continued to treat inmates brutally. If you are that concerned and feel that someone is going to be killed because of the brutality why would you continue to work for such a horrible place? Any human being that doesn't get 'kicks' from the power of abusing another person would not have stayed employed in such a place. He used his power and when the time finally came to take responsibilty for his actions he became the victim and is probably benefiting from it. This is not right or acceptable. When it comes down to it what he did was wrong and time should be served for what he did. He may not have killed anyone but abuse is abuse. If it were a husband and wife or child would this be handled the same way?Mississippi is a great place to live even after Hurricane Katrina because we pulled ourselves and eachother up and didn't wait for the government to show up months later. We on the coast will overcome this obstacle just as we did after the hurricane it may take a long time but we will get through this.
Posted By Maddie Biloxi, MS : 6:51 PM ET
Anderson:

I'd love to see you bring in an army of top notch ACLU or civil rights litigators to shut this jail down. And for once, I'd love to see the Justice Department actually do their job and indict everyone involved, including the physician who signed off on the phony autopsy.
Posted By Jim in Colorado : 7:17 PM ET
It seems that this problem is not only in Mississippi. My son was arrested and taken to the Monmouth County Jail in Freehold, New Jersey for a misdemeanor where he was brutally beaten by six corrections officers - five to hold him down and one to do the beating - when he was being booked. He ended up with two black eyes and 17 stiches, along with other bruises. It does not take six men to restrain a kid who weighs 140 pounds. This is obvious brutality by people who should not be in the positions that they are in. When I picked him up from the jail, we went straight to our hospital to document everything. The emergency room staff were astounded and shocked that something like this could happen "so close to home - Monmouth County, New Jersey". This just proves that brutality by some people who feel that they have power over others occurs everywhere. It amazes me how some people who are in positions of power seem to find delight in abusing their power and obviously enjoy brutally treating those who are in their charge. Thank you for reporting on this problem which occurs more often than we think.
Posted By Eleanor, Eatontown, NJ : 7:41 PM ET
About the comment by DH, Lake Barrington: Yes, you do lose rights when you get incarcerated. However, it is more than likely that these men were merely arrested for a crime. They haven't been tried or convicted. As such, we don't know whether the inmate's deeds merited the death penalty. Only a jury or judge can impose sentence, not rogue jailers.
Posted By SG, 40 miles due ease of Gulfport : 1:00 AM ET
I WANT TO THANK EVERYONE FOR THEIR CONCERNS, PRAYERS ETC.. FOR OUR FAMILY. WE THANK CNN FOR BRINGING THIS STORY OUT FOR LEE. NO WEAPON FORMED AGAINST US SHALL PROSPER. GOD WILL FIGHT OUR BATTLE. THIS HAS BEEN GOING ON FOR YEARS AND IT WAS TIME THAT THEY WERE EXPOSED.
Posted By SHYRI SMITH/LEE AUNT : 3:30 PM ET
My husband is from Britain, where yob (thug) culture thrives because decent people can't defend themselves and the police are almost invisible and don't get the support of the government and communities they serve. (My husband's friend was robbed, and it took the police 8 days to respond. My husband was assaulted twice and no one was ever convicted.) I told him that here in America the police do have support, some of the suspects die in their custody, and it is likely that the perpetrators will not be prosecuted. I am proud of our police force, but I also know that law enforcement is the perfect job for the schoolyard bully. We must reinforce to the police that the motto "Protect and Serve" is more than just words. This family has my prayers and sympathy.
Posted By Mary, Beaver, PA : 11:54 AM ET
To Shyri Smith,
Keep fighting and keep searching for justice. You definately are in our prayers. It just isn't right, what has happened to your family just isn't right. Keep fighting.

Madeliene
Posted By Madeliene Bolden; Atlanta, Georgia : 2:28 PM ET
To the readers of this Blog... most notably DH, of Barrington...

It is utterly bafffeling to me how some people will use one crime to justify another.
1. We don't know the crime but we were never there either.
2.Isn't it possible that the person is innocent of the charge?
3. Isn't it possible that the charge is shoplifting or public intoxication?
4. Isn't it possible that this persons punishment then is grossly disproportionate to his crime?
5.Isn't it possible that this has nothing to do with his race or the race of his officers but rather the policies of the jail itself?
6. Isn't it then possible that we may all be subjected to this type of treatment?
7. Is it possible that the young man simply didn't deserve it?
8. DH... here is a voucher for one free nights accomadations at that jail. Pack your bags and your toothbrush.... Hurry or you'll miss fruit cup.

My goodness.... I think we may have an issue that cannot be explained or justified by a mother bitter over a drunk driver killing her child, or a father bitter over his daughters rape, or some bafoon's idea of the master race.
Then we might have to consider the issue rather than our own self centered ideas of poetic justice. My; wouldn't that be something?

Then again DH... you could be right; A pot smoker arrested for jay walking might just deserve a good lump on the head with a nightstick, or some drunk idjit might just deserve to be beat by FBI officers and New Orleans Police officers without being granted an alcohol test that may have proved he was actually sober....

Ya... you might be right.... but I doubt it. That would be grossly unethical, as it is in fact unethical to come to a conclusion concerning a man's life based on faulty or erronious information. just ask the Iraqi's; they'd agree with ya.
Posted By James Foley Kamiah, Idaho : 6:00 PM ET
What I want to know is...

How much of this incident has to do with general policies within the system?
How much of this shows a pattern within law enforcement as a whole?
What can we do to stop it?
Have many in law enforcement have gotten the definitions of "treatment" and contempt mixed up; as in "Equal [treatment] under the laws".?
Is law enforcement just taking a page out of the bush playbook and shooting first and asking questions later?

Is there a reasonable, logical explanation for all this or will we see yet another example of a plausible fallacy?

In other words... has the family basically been told... "WHA?! It could happen?!"

I think I have the solution though... let's hier mythbusters... they at least do their jobs.
Posted By James Foley Kamiah, Idaho : 6:09 PM ET
Well, let's see now. In my opinion, the best way to avoid having this kind of nasty thing happen to you is fairly simple. Stay out of Jail.

Especially if (1) It's a jail cell down in the deep South and (2) you are one of the Brothers.

Thanks for taking my call.

BCNU
Posted By Rollo Rogers, San Diego, CA : 5:18 PM ET
To Rollo Rogers,

Um... eya...

Because just going to jail is a good reason to get murdered. And hey... anyone who goes to jail deserves going to jail, and should just get murdered.... after all, who does this inmate think he is?! Getting thrown into jail like that... the nerve.

Here's a scenario for ya...

You're a cop who sees a guy stumbling around at about 11:30 at night, and you assume he's drunk. You approach and tell him you're going to take him to jail. He tells you to give him an alcohol test so he can prove he's sober...
Do you
a)Give him the test
b)Change your mind and let him go
or
C)Shoot the arrogant jerk; problem solved?

My guess is, you'd choose C.

Get the message?
Posted By James Foley Kamiah, Idaho : 4:26 PM ET
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