Sure, the fact that a jury sided with Cunningham -- who was handcuffed face down on the floor when he was stomped on and, according to him, partially blinded by a kick to the eye from Deputy James Riley -- and awarded him $49,000 is bound to fade quickly from public memory.
The problem for the county jail thugs now, folks, is the lawyers, really good ones whose credentials I won't bore you with here. They swarmed around the courthouse during the Cunningham trial, watching and learning. These are the same lawyers who will be fighting the three additional beatings cases pending against the sheriff and his deputies in the coming year. Two more may be pending.
As the FBI, the Justice Department and the ACLU are well aware, the bloody pictures that will be shown to juries in these trials are exactly the kind of stuff major networks love to splash across television sets. My point here is that the Mecklenburg way of dealing with ugly situations that reflect poorly on us -- pretending they don't exist despite glaring evidence to the contrary -- is perhaps not the best route to take in this situation.
Sheriff Pendergraph doesn't yet appear to grasp this. He couldn't have been more obnoxious or less concerned when he took the stand in the Cunningham case, the only witness during the entire trial to keep the jury and the judge waiting while his lawyers hunted him down.
The case was apparently not of enough concern to Pendergraph for him to make a point of showing up on time -- or familiarizing himself with the details of the incident that took place in his jail and landed everyone in court, waiting for his Highness to make an appearance. With a wise-aleck grin, he claimed not to be familiar with a training manual on the use of force used by his office. He claimed, under oath, not to be familiar enough with basic aspects of the case to answer simple questions tossed at him by Cunningham's attorney, Pamela Hunter. After Hunter read shocking testimony by Deputy James Riley that he knew of other deputies in the jail who had harshly beaten inmates, she asked Pendergraph if he was aware of incidents "like that" occurring in his jail. The Sheriff, who, again, was under oath, answered "No."
I find it hard to believe that Pendergraph has somehow missed Creative Loafing's extensive coverage of the multiple beating and abuse cases filed against his office, the FBI investigation into at least one of those cases, and his attorney's own efforts, over the course of a year, to bar anyone, including the media and Cunningham's lawyer, from getting hold of the tape of deputies beating Cunningham or making it available to the public.
Pendergraph can be as blase as he wants about it, but this situation just isn't going to go away. The good news here is that county leaders still have time to deal with this problem before it embarrasses this community any further. They still have time to systematically clean house at the jail and address the training and attitude problems of those running it before they kill someone. It's not too late to create another side of the story to mute the damage that will be done to this county's image as the full story of what has been going on in our jail unfolds. We still have time to put our best face forward so there will at least be a record of a genuine effort to clean up the situation at the jail as these cases go to trial and various investigations move forward over the next year or so. Now is the time to begin the long process of straightening out a jail system in which detention officers have long since been out of control.
If Sheriff Jim Pendergraph isn't willing to do it, the county commission must step in. At a minimum, the county, which funds the jail system, should at least form a committee to review these cases and internal prisoner complaints of physical abuse, which the sheriff's office refuses to share with the media. That way, commissioners will at least be familiar with the potentially deadly problems with how the jail is being run before the media familiarizes the community, and possibly the nation, with those problems.
Contact Tara Servatius at email@example.com.
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