The long nightmare of 42-year-old Steven Jessie Harris has finally been transformed into the bright light of a better day with the ruling of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals just two weeks ago on March 8 in Oxford. Arrested in October 2005 under the allegations of shooting his father to death, carjacking, and engaging in a shootout with Clay County law enforcement, Harris was ordered to be subjected immediately to mental competency tests in July 2006 but was held in jail and sent to Whitfield in defiance of the court order.
Even after the mental competency tests were administered in 2010, Harris was sent back to Clay County Jail and remained there until his legal case was taken up by his caregivers in 2016.
He was held for a total of 11 years with no formal charges brought against him during this time.
The federal court determined that Clay County and its two sheriffs at the time of the incidents were guilty of violating a court ruling of 50 years standing that a mentally incompetent suspect must be placed in a mental institution or released.
“If there is no real probability that the defendant will become competent,” the decision said, “the state must institute civil commitment proceedings – to gauge the dangerousness of the defendant – or release him.”
Harris was finally released on August 15, 2017.
Rachel Harris of Jackson, Harris’ guardian, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of her brother-in-law in 2018. He still requires professional care. Initially, the demand was for $11 million in damages for the years Steven spent in unlawful detention in violation of his 14th Amendment rights.
A party to the lawsuit said Saturday that the Harris vs Clay County lawsuit had been settled to the family’s satisfaction.
NEARLY 20 YEARS
Harris’ lead attorney Carlos Moore, managing partner of the Cochran Firm in Grenada, says his client’s rights to an official evaluation of his competency and a speedy trial were denied him. Both Moore and co-counsel James Bryant said the Harris case might become a precedent for future cases of this type.
“You have a constitutional right to a speedy trial,” Moore said. “There shouldn’t be any cruel or unusual punishment. It’s very cruel and unusual to lock somebody up and throw away the key for 11 years without a trial. You have a fourth amendment right to no unreasonable searches and seizures. There were several constitutional rights that were violated here.”
Although the medical analysts determined nearly 20 years ago that Harris was schizophrenic and incompetent to stand trial for the alleged murder of his father and the alleged assaults against law officers in Clay County, former Clay County Sheriff Laddie Huffman and current Sheriff Eddie Scott and the other authorities responsible for the county law enforcement were adjudged to be in violation of the law.
“A few days after Harris should have been released,” the court ruled, “Huffman and Scott signed the declaration testifying that Harris was not in the jail (this in a relatively small county with approximately 20,000 citizens and roughly 100 inmates at a given time). That lie allows a factfinder to infer that Huffman and Scott were covering something up – that they knew there was no longer any basis to hold Harris.”
After Harris filed suit in federal court, Clay County authorities appealed and sought to settle the case for an amount that was unacceptable to the plaintiff and his support team.
The court observed that there was apparently no Mississippi court willing to accept jurisdiction over the civil commitment proceedings which, federal law suggests, were due to Harris.
Harris’ twin brother, Steven Jeremy Harris, was a consistent advocate for his brother and held off celebrating their court victories until now.
“I was there for my brother all the way,” he said. “Working in conjunction with Attorney Carlos Moore, we were able, ultimately, to set Steve Jessie Harris free with all charges dropped.
“It was also our good fortune that Attorney Scott Colom won the historical election [as] 16th District Attorney of the Golden Triangle Area, beating out former incumbent DA Forest Allgood, [who was] notorious for wrongfully convicting Black people in prior years. The new DA made the right decision and [was] compelled for Steve Jessie Harris to be set free.”
The case was fought for several years all the way from the local courts of Clay County to Mississippi state courts to the federal courts, Steven Harris said.
“Ultimately it made its way to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals where these Appeal Court judges scolded the Mississippi law enforcement agencies for deliberately violating the Constitution and even caught them lying under oath,” he said. “The 5th Circuit even stated that if it wasn’t for the Clarion Ledger story then the case would probably still be in the dark.”
Clay County lost the initial lawsuit and followed up with an appeal to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals but then offered to settle the case before it went before the appeals judges.
Now that the case has been officially settled between both parties, there will not be a federal trial by jury.
Following on the projection of Attorney James Bryant that the Harris vs. Clay County ruling may stand as a precedent for future cases similar to it, some of the observations of the court may constitute the groundwork for such a precedent.
The decision – “if there is no real probability that the defendant will become competent, the state must institute civil commitment proceedings – to gauge the dangerousness of the defendant – or release him” – was central to the court’s ruling.
The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits a state from confining a criminal defendant “solely on account of his incapacity to proceed to trial” for more than “the reasonable period of time necessary to determine whether there is substantial probability that he will attain that capacity in the foreseeable future,” the judge wrote.
Without a chance at his competency being restored or a pending civil proceeding that could result in his commitment based on dangerousness, Harris was entitled to go free.
“This case violated the commit-or-release rule that the Supreme Court recognized a half century ago. The sheriffs do not push back much against the notion that the Constitution required Harris’s release. They instead mostly argue that they are not responsible for any constitutional violation. Any fault, they contend, lies with the courts or prosecutor.
“Courts, including ours, have rejected jailers’ ‘just-following-orders defenses’ in cases with much briefer unlawful detentions. Even when a detention was ‘pursuant to a valid court order,’ we held that detaining a defendant for nine months without bringing him before a judge offended his due process rights.
“Harris was a pretrial detainee, yet to plead guilty or have a trial. He spent an indefinite period of time in jail for years. And during his prolonged detentions there was no one held responsible for an unlawful detention.
“Harris did not even have a court date on the calendar. Judged by these metrics, it would seem that the constitutional violation here is even more severe,” the court ruled.