Sex abuse, beatings and an untouchable Mississippi sheriff

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Sabrina Campbell holds a memorial pamphlet dedicated to her sister, Jessie Douglas-Rhine, in Starkville, Mississippi on Feb. 8, 2023. Rory Doyle for The New York Times

As abuse allegations in a rural jail piled up, criminal inquiries dragged on or went nowhere. No one scrutinized how the sheriff ran his jail.

By Ilyssa Daly and Jerry Mitchell

Part II

Ilyssa Daly examines the power of sheriff’s offices in Mississippi as part of The Times’s Local Investigations Fellowship. Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter who has examined civil rights-era cold murder cases in the state for more than 30 years.

A Jail With No Rules

The jail that Mr. Grassaree oversaw for most of his career sits frozen in time on Industrial Road on the outskirts of Macon, next to the old Purina pet food mill that now produces feed for catfish farms.

The building has been locked and empty since about 2014, when Mr. Grassaree and his deputies packed up and began moving to a new facility down the street. Inside the old jail, a blackened mix of dirt, rust and mold has crept over the white iron cell doors. Bags of trash and dusty bed linens litter the remaining furniture and the floor.

When Mr. Grassaree was put in charge of this building in the 1990s, he inherited a jailhouse that essentially operated without rules. Jail workers allowed inmates to come and go from the building without logging the inmates’ movements or supervising them closely.

The only policies about the jail that appear in the 2003 Noxubee County Sheriff’s Policy Manual center on the use of force. None tell how to run the jail.

For years, certain inmates were let out of their cells to help cook, pass out food trays and clean.

Kennedy Brewer, who entered the jail in 2002, was one of the facility’s most trusted inmates. Eyebrows were raised when he showed up at a court hearing on his own, having driven himself to the courthouse without a deputy to escort him, according to Forrest Allgood, the district attorney at the time.

Mr. Brewer spent five years at the jail waiting to be retried after DNA evidence proved he had been wrongly convicted of sexually abusing and murdering a 3-year-old girl. When prosecutors gave up on a new trial, Mr. Brewer was released, and his case was featured in the Netflix documentary series, “The Innocence Files.”

Testifying under oath as a witness in a lawsuit in 2007, Mr. Brewer said he served as a jail trusty, or an inmate with special privileges, and had access to keys that opened each cell. He said he would check newly arrested people into the jail and that he once escorted an inmate to a cell with no one else present.

Mr. Grassaree has denied that inmates were allowed to use jail keys without supervision.

On a June day in 2006, Mr. Brewer had no problem getting into the women’s cell block undetected.

He grabbed the jailer’s keys off the nail hanging on the wall and slipped down the short hallway that ran the length of the jail. In a building smaller than a McDonald’s, he and a fellow inmate didn’t have to go far. There were no guards patrolling the halls and no surveillance cameras to catch any movements.

When Mr. Brewer unlocked the cell door, one of the women inside was lying down for a nap.

Then Brewer was on top of her, grabbing her arms and forcing her down, according to statements the woman later gave to state agents.

The grave of Jessie Levette Douglas remains near Starkville, Mississippi on Feb. 9, 2023. Rory Doyle for The New York Times

“No, I don’t want to do this,” she begged, according to her statements.

Then she looked for her cellmate, Jessie Levette Douglas. She told investigators she saw another inmate, Laterris Goodwin, on top of her.

It was all over in moments.

The woman who originally reported the rapes declined to be interviewed for this article. Ms. Douglas died of renal failure in a state prison in 2018.

When investigators interview rape victims, they are supposed to remain impartial. But when Mr. Grassaree, who was chief deputy at the time, found the woman crying on the floor, he stood over her and shouted, the woman said in a deposition taken as part of her subsequent lawsuit against the county. He and another member of the sheriff’s office yelled that she couldn’t tell anybody about the rape and that she was “going to make them lose their jobs and make the department look bad,” according to her sworn statement.

“They kept berating me as if I had done something wrong,” she said.

When state agents arrived the next day at the request of the sheriff’s office, Mr. Grassaree handed them everything they needed to dismiss the allegations, including signed statements from two of the men saying the women had invited them to have sex, and more important, a statement from Ms. Douglas saying everything she saw and experienced was consensual.

If Mr. Grassaree and his deputies had been in charge of the investigation, it might have ended there. But when state agents interviewed Ms. Douglas, her story changed.

She told investigators that she and her cellmate had been raped that day and that she lied in her first statement because Mr. Grassaree had pressured her to cover up what happened.

Mr. Grassaree “told me to tell everybody the sex was consensual and that for me to ‘help a brother,’ referring to Brewer,” Ms. Douglas wrote in a later statement. “He told me to tell everybody that we put on a freak show for the male inmates.”

In reality, Ms. Douglas told the agents, three men incarcerated at the jail — Mr. Brewer, Mr. Goodwin and Michael Slaughter — had entered her locked cell at different times on the same day and had raped her.

In statements to investigators, Mr. Slaughter, Mr. Brewer and Mr. Goodwin denied that they had raped the women, claiming that the sex was consensual.

In an interview from 2022, Mr. Brewer denied ever having sex with anyone inside the jail. Neither Mr. Slaughter nor Mr. Goodwin could be reached for comment.

Both women were given polygraph tests, and the examiner concluded that they were telling the truth, according to state investigators’ records. Mr. Goodwin and Mr. Slaughter failed polygraph tests; Mr. Brewer declined to take one.

State agents shared their findings with federal and state prosecutors, and the case was presented to a Noxubee County grand jury. The grand jury decided not to issue charges.

Legal experts say Mr. Grassaree could have been investigated for obstructing justice in the case. That never happened, and neither did an investigation of practices in the jail, where agents concluded that four rapes had taken place.

Noxubee County’s insurance company settled the woman’s lawsuit in 2009. The Macon Beacon reported that she was paid $375,000.

Sabrina Campbell said her sister, Ms. Douglas — the woman who said she was raped by three inmates and who died many years later — wanted the public to know what happened to her. “I don’t want my sister to have died in vain,” Ms. Campbell said.

The rapes devastated her sister, who never stopped battling nightmares afterward, she said. “She was scared all the time. She would tell nieces and nephews about the jail, ‘Don’t ever come here, because your life is over.’”

The Noxubee County Adult Detention Facility remains just down the street from the previous jail in Macon, Mississippi on Feb. 8, 2023. Rory Doyle for The New York Times

Another Round of Allegations

Allegations of sexual abuse at the Noxubee County jail did not end with the 2006 case.

In 2020, Elizabeth Layne Reed, a woman incarcerated at the jail, made explosive allegations against the men she encountered there. In a lawsuit she filed that year, she accused two deputies, Vance Phillips and Damon Clark, of coercing her into having sex.

She said the men gave her a cellphone and other perks so that she would have sexual encounters with them in remote spots around the jail or when the deputies checked her out of the facility. The deputies even put a sofa in her jail cell, she said.

Ms. Reed said in an interview that she wanted the public to know what happened to her in the hope that others would come forward. “It made me terrified to trust anybody,” she said. “Women in jail and prison need to be protected.”

According to her lawsuit, Mr. Grassaree knew all about his deputies’ “sexual contacts and shenanigans,” but did nothing to “stop the coerced sexual relationships.” Mr. Grassaree denied any knowledge of what deputies were doing. “Are you a boss?” he said. “Do your employees tell you everything they do?”

Instead of intervening, the lawsuit alleged, the sheriff “sexted” her and demanded that she use the phone the deputies had given her to send him “a continuous stream of explicit videos, photographs and texts” while she was in jail. She also alleged in the lawsuit that Mr. Grassaree touched her in a “sexual manner.”

The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount.

News outlets in Mississippi made brief mention of the lawsuit, but government officials at all levels, including federal and state prosecutors, were silent for two years about what, if anything, they were doing to investigate the allegations it raised, and whether they had found evidence to support them.

A review by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and The New York Times of documents filed in the lawsuit, along with documents from the preceding 2019 state investigation, reveals that Ms. Reed accused other deputies besides Mr. Phillips and Mr. Clark of sexual harassment and abuse. None of the other deputies have been charged or named publicly. It is unclear whether the F.B.I. investigated those allegations.

The federal bureau’s investigation into Mr. Grassaree, Mr. Phillips and Mr. Clark took more than two years to yield charges, even though investigators had confessions of sexual contact from the deputies as well as text messages between the woman and the three men. In fall of 2022, several weeks after reporters began asking authorities about the case, Mr. LaMarca successfully sought indictments against Mr. Grassaree and Mr. Phillips on bribery charges. Mr. Clark has not been indicted.

Ms. Reed hoped that other deputies, including Mr. Clark, would be held accountable, she said. “They’re still walking around free, not worried about any charges.”

Ms. Reed said that she felt sick to her stomach when she found out that neither Mr. Grassaree nor Mr. Phillips had been directly charged in connection with her allegations of sex abuse. Lawyers for Mr. Phillips did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Mr. Clark could not be reached for comment.

The indictments do not mention sexual abuse. Along with bribery, Mr. Grassaree was also charged with lying to the F.B.I. in denying that he had “requested and received” nude photos and videos from Ms. Reed. A trial is scheduled for summer.

Julie Abbate, who served as the deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division from 2003 to 2018 and reviewed the allegations at the news organizations’ request, said the federal prosecutors could have explored criminal charges against Mr. Grassaree and his deputies for violating the civil rights of women in his facility.

The question of whether to bring federal charges in the case may have been complicated by guidance the Department of Justice issued in 2018, saying that law enforcement officers cannot be federally prosecuted for violating a person’s civil rights if the person “truly made a voluntary decision as to what she wanted to do with her body,” particularly if she received a benefit or special treatment in exchange for sex.

But Ms. Reed’s decisions in the episode in the Noxubee County jail were “not free-will choices,” said Andrea Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola University, and the cellphone Ms. Reed received from deputies “was the vehicle by which more abuse could be directed towards her.”

Mississippi law makes it a crime for law enforcement officers to engage in sexual acts with incarcerated people. Prosecutors are not required to prove the victims were physically overpowered or even that they told their abuser to stop.

Noxubee County Sheriff Tom Roby looks through the old county jail in Macon, Mississippi on Feb. 8, 2023. Rory Doyle for The New York Times

But the district attorney’s office that handles criminal cases in Noxubee County chose to pass the 2020 case on to federal prosecutors, instead of seeking charges under the state law, because of worries about getting a fair jury in the county. When asked about federal prosecutors’ decision to charge Mr. Grassaree and Mr. Phillips with bribery in the case, the district attorney, Mr. Colom, said, “I trust federal authorities to use the best statutes.”

Ms. Abbate said the allegations about abuses in the Noxubee County jail were indicative of a larger, pervasive problem at the facility and a harmful culture inside the sheriff’s office. That culture, she said, undoubtedly endangered inmates and allowed abuses to continue.

“The allegations that come to light are almost always just the tip of the iceberg,” said Ms. Abbate, who is now director of Just Detention International, an organization dedicated to ending sexual abuse in correctional facilities. Referring to the 2006 and 2020 cases, she said, “I guarantee you that these two instances are not the only ones.”

This article was co-reported by The New York Times and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting at Mississippi Today.

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Sex abuse, beatings and an untouchable Mississippi sheriff

By Jackson Advocate News Service
April 24, 2023