An inmate at Bertie County Correctional Institute will have his day in court after accusing three correctional officers of beating him to the point of vision loss during a cell extraction videotaped by one of the guards.
Sgt. David Mansfield, one of the three defendants in the inmate's lawsuit, attempted to block the video camera's line of sight during the alleged beating, rendering an SBI investigation inconclusive. But the video still captured certain elements of the incident, including punching, blood, shackles and facial injuries.
Inmate Sammy Ussery filed an excessive force lawsuit 2011. The guards, represented by Attorney General Roy Cooper's office, sought to get the case thrown out on qualified immunity grounds (i.e., that they were acting out their duties as law enforcement agents). But last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which governs federal courts in North Carolina, declared that Ussery's case would go forward.
Both parties agree that a team of correctional officers extracted Usery from his cell on July 9, 2008, under the direction of Mansfield, which resulted in the treatment of injuries at a hospital. Beyond that, the accounts differ.
Ussery claims that the guards had been ransacking his cell numerous times, presumably to look for contraband or weapons. The day of the incident, Ussery would not permit Mansfield to enter his cell. Mansfield shot a burst of pepper spray inside. He then told other officers that Ussery was hiding a gun and threatening to harm them, according to Ussery, who denies making threats. No gun was found.
A five-member extraction team entered the cell. According to Ussery, they beat him in the head and face with batons, punches, kicks and stomps; hogtied him with shackles; and dragged him to a holding cage leaving a trail of blood. One witness confirmed the trail of blood.
The officers claim that they "escorted" Ussery out of his cell, and denied punching and kicking him.
The medical records show that Ussery suffered from hearing and vision loss, neck pain, chronic swelling, loss of feeling in his hands and knee, recurring migraines and emotional pain, Ussery claims.
But a longtime N.C. prison doctor, who reviewed the medical records but did not examine Ussery, said that the inmate's injuries were minor.
Five months later, the N.C. Department of Corrections asked the State Bureau of Investigation conduct an inquiry into possible excessive force. The investigation ended with inconclusive results, though the report said that the officers' behavior "appears too aggressive for the situation and would be excessive force."
The district attorney involved in the state's investigation claimed that Mansfield's apparent blocking of the cell door during the videotaping was "disturbing," and "precluded [the state] from investigating this matter fully."
After the correctional officers filed a motion to have the Ussery's lawsuit thrown out, a district court judge declined, ruling that the question remained "as to whether there are extraordinary circumstances so repugnant to the conscience of mankind." In last week's opinion, the Fourth Circuit unanimously affirmed the district judge's reasoning.