A very disturbing case of alleged police brutality just got far worse after defense counsel for Jim Jones, 62, alleged in open court that a prosecutor with the District Attorney for Lawrence County, Tennessee told a deputy sheriff to delete pictures of the beaten Jones. The prosecutor “has been terminated” but the question is whether the disclosure will feature in a trial for civil damages.
Two Lawrence County deputies with the 22nd Judicial Drug Task Force, Eric Caperton and Zach Ferguson, arrested Jones on a rural road. They reported that, after they first tried to pull over Jones in his truck, he took off and triggered a police chase. They claim that he threw drugs from the truck but there is no dash camera recording of the chase. They also say that, while he first put his hand outside of the truck as instructed, he pulled them back inside as they approached. He is then accused of resisting arrest.
The family insists that Jones is disabled after breaking his back and that he would not be able to resist, even if he was inclined to do so. According to the complaint, Jones suffered extensive damage to his eye sockets, his sinus cavity and his nose — requiring multiple surgical procedures to reconstruct his face.
Lawrence County Sheriff John Myers issued the following statement:
“With regards to the incident that happened last October involving two of our deputies obviously, this matter is the subject of an ongoing investigation. The Sheriff’s Department has and will continue to cooperate with that investigation. The deputies have been placed on administrative leave pending that investigation in accordance with departmental policy. However, the facts currently understood by the County differs from those alleged by Mr. Jones and the County has no reason to doubt the details reported by either deputy. It is our belief that both of our deputies acted within their scope as certified law enforcement officers and used the minimal amount of force necessary to effect the arrest of Jones. Based upon the information reported by the deputies and the level and nature of the resistance exhibited by Mr. Jones, the deputies involved responded appropriately and acted in accordance with the policy and training of the Sheriff’s Department.”
In court, his counsel told the court that officers took pictures of Jones’ beaten face and “Deputy Ferguson texted photographs of Mr. Jones injuries to” a prosecutor in District Attorney Brent Cooper’s Office. The prosecutor then allegedly instructed “Ferguson to delete the photos.”
District Attorney Brent Cooper released a statement saying “[t]he prosecutor referenced in this article has been terminated and no longer works for this office.”
The family filed a civil lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deprivation of civil rights secured by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. It alleges a “savage, willful, malicious, sadistic assault of Mr. Jones.” [Warning the complaint contain very disturbing photos of the injuries to Jones). The complaint describes not just an unwarranted and unjustified beating but part of a pattern for the officers:
For no apparent reason, and certainly no legitimate law enforcement purpose, the officers jerked Mr. Jones from the vehicle, and commenced a savage attack. Together, they slammed him to the ground face first. Defendant Caperton then placed his knee in the back of Mr. Jones and then Defendant Ferguson viciously punched Mr. Jones in the face and head multiple times.
Upon information and belief, this was not the first time, nor would it be the last that Caperton and Ferguson engaged in behavior of this sort- specifically the unjustified use of excessive force, a fact well known to the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department.
The complaint seeks punitive damages.
The question is how the alleged attempted cover up would play in such a case. Instructions to destroy the evidence violate both police regulations as well as ethical rules. Indeed, the prosecutor could face bar proceedings. Under Tennessee bar rules (and those of other states):
RULE 3.4: FAIRNESS TO OPPOSING PARTY AND COUNSEL
A lawyer shall not:
(a) unlawfully obstruct another party’s access to evidence or unlawfully alter, destroy, or conceal a document or other material having potential evidentiary value. A lawyer shall not counsel or assist another person to do any such act; …
In a trial, it would be clearly relevant if the officer destroyed pictures of the abuse. The disclosure would also be highly damaging for the defense. One question is whether the unnamed prosecutor could now be added as a party in an amended complaint as part of a post-incident conspiracy.
If admitted, the officers’ counsel is likely to say that he was doing the right thing by sharing the photos with the District Attorney’s office. Rather than hide the incident, he was disclosing it. Moreover, they could argue that he was following legal instructions if he did in fact delete the photos. As for the prosecutor, we have not heard his or her reasoning. It could be argued that they did not want such photos circulating for privacy reasons but one would expect that the advice would be to preserve but not share such photos.
Conversely, the destruction of the photos could be alleged as evidence that the officers and prosecutor understood that they conduct violated Section 1983. Moreover, the destruction could be cited as adding to the need for punitive damages to deter future such misconduct.
The case also highlights the need for all police departments, even small departments, to have dash cameras and body cameras for officers.