The justice system under fire in Mississippi. A young man's death opens the
door to allegations of brutality, torture, and murder...
Harrison County Jail
Our story begins in Biloxi, Mississippi. That's where we set out to look into a
suspicious incident. Then we started digging. And what people say is
happening is both shocking and nearly impossible to believe.
First, the backdrop.
Here's CNN's Kathleen Koch.
KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On a cool
December afternoon last year, Lee Demond Smith was arrested on this
corner in Biloxi, Mississippi, for a crime he said he didn't commit. Cops say he
shot a man in the leg. Police brought him here to the Harrison County Jail. His
mother was terrified.
LASHUN SMITH, MOTHER OF LEE SMITH: I do not sleep. I just lay and stare.
KOCH: But Smith reassured his mom, swore he was innocent, and would be
released soon. For the 21-year-old Smith, family was everything. He was a
big brother who wrote letters to his three younger sisters about the kind of
women he hoped they would be when they grew up. He washed dishes at this
casino near his working-class neighborhood.
LASHUN SMITH: You know, I'm going to take care of you. He say, I'm going to
get you something real nice.
KOCH: But the arrest terrified Smith's mother, Lashun. She had heard
frightening stories about guards abusing inmates in the jail.
LASHUN SMITH: I'm terrified of all of the cops, all of them.
KOCH: We will come back to Lee Demond Smith's story in a moment.
But, first, you need to know what had going on in the jail, long before he ever
(on camera): The Harrison County Jail has a deeply troubled history. At least
four inmates have died due to unnatural circumstances since 2002. And, last
year, an inmate was beaten to death in the booking room, the entire incident
captured by jailhouse cameras.
(voice-over): The federal government won't release the video of that beating,
citing an ongoing investigation, but these pictures show what happened to
that inmate, Jessie Lee Williams. Guards beat him into a coma, and Tasered
him so viciously, holes were burnt into his flesh.
Attorney Michael Crosby represents Williams' family.
MICHAEL CROSBY, ATTORNEY FOR WILLIAMS FAMILY: When they finally
called the ambulance, he left unconscious. His pupils were fixed and dilated.
He was, for all practical purpose, dead.
KOCH: Williams, a father of six, was soon taken off life support. Four jailers
were indicted and pleaded not guilty. One has pleaded guilty, and another
pleaded guilty to falsifying reports. The criminal trial is next month.
And then there are four more guards who have also pleaded guilty to abusing
other inmates, among them, former deputy Preston Wills. Wills says he was
not there the day of Williams' assault, but he says he witnessed and
participated in many other beatings.
PRESTON WELLS, FORMER JAILER: I have seen people get punched. I
have seen people get kicked. I have seen, you know, basically, just beat them
-- that's about as best I can describe it -- I mean, for no reason.
CROSBY: It was not a racial issue. It was across the board. It was just an
issue of people having complete power over other people who were in a
compromised position, with no power. And that was it, and that was their
excuse to just unleash holy terror upon them.
KOCH: Roderick Miller is a former inmate.
RODERICK MILLER, FORMER INMATE: I was punched. I was drug across a
bench. I was kicked.
KOCH (on camera): Did they say anything while they were doing this?
MILLER: He repeatedly said he will kill me. He says, "I'm going to kill you."
KOCH: Did you believe him?
MILLER: Yes, I did believe him. I knew I was going to die.
KOCH (voice-over): Miller says, during his single night in jail, he was attacked
by two guards, who threatened him, pummelled him, slammed him into a
concrete wall, and ripped his shoulder out of its socket, all of it, he says,
totally unprovoked. Miller has filed a lawsuit. The guards and the county have
denied his allegations.
MILLER: There is no one in this world -- in this world -- who could ever
convince me that I deserved any aspect of the beating, the torture, the
brutality, and to place me in such fear of my life, that I knew I was going to
die, and I was not going to see my kids, my children, my family, no one.
KOCH: Remember, this is a county jail. Most of the inmates have not been
convicted of a crime, and many spend only one night here, after being
arrested on minor offenses.
That's exactly what happened to this 27-year-old woman, arrested for public
intoxication in 2001. This surveillance video shows her being walked into the
booking room, resisting officers. A guard throws her down, face first. Later, as
she kicks while held in a restraining chair, another officer takes a can of
pepper spray, pries open her left eye, and shoots point blank.
She spent only one night in jail, but, when she left, she looked like this. Later,
a district court would find jailers did not use excessive force, in light of the
inmate's -- quote -- "behavior and combativeness."
Former jailer Preston wills was not present for this incident, but says the
abuse was actually encouraged by senior officials.
(on camera): So, you were following along with the other jailers?
WILLS: Following along with the supervisors, supervisors, and the captain on
down, you know?
KOCH: So, everyone knew about this and condoned it? WILLS: Yes.
KOCH (voice-over): Sheriff George Payne, who supervises the jail, would not
go on camera, but issued this statement, saying -- quote -- "I, in no matter or
form, condone or encourage the use of excessive force by any individual
employed by the Harrison County Sheriff's Department. As always, in the
event that I become aware of such allegations, the incident is thoroughly
investigated and reported to the proper investigatory entity."
But few are ever held responsible, says former jailer Preston Wills, because
guards were taught to cover up the abuse by writing false incident reports.
(on camera): Did you think that the beatings would ever go to a point that
someone would die?
WILLS: Yes, ma'am, most definitely. It was just a matter of time.
KOCH (voice-over): All of this happened before young Lee Demond Smith
ever even set foot in the Harrison County Jail.
COOPER: A look at the "Raw Data" on death behind bars.
In 2005, the most recent numbers available, more than 4,000 inmates died in
state prisons and jails across America. Illness was the biggest cause, taking
3,136 lives. Five hundred and two inmates committed suicide. At least 78
In a Biloxi, Mississippi, jail, there are allegations being made against the
guards, allegations involving excessive force, beatings, even murder.
When 21-year-old Lee Demond Smith got there, he had no idea, probably,
what people were accusing the guards of doing. He spent just a few days
behind bars. And that's when something happened to him, a tragedy that his
family says was unspeakable and unnatural.
Once again, here's Kathleen Koch.
KOCH (voice-over): Madeline Dedeaux was a deputy and kitchen supervisor
in the Harrison County Jail. She had heard inmates talk about beatings, but,
last year, on January 7, she walked in on one in the booking room.
The ringleader, she says, was a veteran guard named Ryan Teel.
MADELINE DEDEAUX, FORMER JAILER: Ryan Teel was the one doing most
of the blows and the hitting and the punching.
KOCH: Kasey Alves was the inmate. He was arrested that night for public
Alves says guards jumped him for looking into a women's cell. He says he
fought back, until they strapped him tightly into a restraining chair like this
one. At the Harrison County Jail, it's known as the devil's chair.
KASEY ALVES, FORMER INMATE: They put a sheet around my head so tight
that I couldn't breathe, you know, so I'm gasping for air, basically, and water
was poured on me.
KOCH (on camera): What was the effect that this had?
ALVES: I had the effect of I was suffocating. I -- I thought I was going to die,
actually. You know, I'm gasping for air, because the torture was -- it was
horrible. It was very -- it was horrible.
KOCH: Now, you said torture.
ALVES: Yes, torture, yes, because...
KOCH: Do you -- do you believe that's what you underwent?
ALVES: Oh, yes, definitely, mental torture, physical torture. Torture.
KOCH (voice-over): Alves says he was then left for eight hours, strapped in
ALVES: The restraints were so tight, that, actually, it put welts on my
shoulders. It was like a burning sensation that I was feeling.
KOCH: These photos showed the strap imprints on his thighs, ankles,
shoulders and back. Alves suffered severe nerve damage and says his
doctor told him he nearly died of kidney failure.
DEDEAUX: I was so upset, I left, went to my office. I cried. I prayed.
KOCH: And former deputy Madeline Dedeaux filed a report. She also says
she warned her supervisor about Ryan Teel, who she says was the most
DEDEAUX: I had talked to the major and I told her that, in my opinion, if
something's not done to Teel and to -- about that incident, that eventually
someone was going to get killed. He was going to eventually end up killing
someone, but it needed to be done.
KOCH: But Dedeaux said nothing changed, nothing. In fact, it was just one
month later that Jessie Lee Williams was beaten into a coma and died.
Deputy Teel was charged with attempting to kill Williams and then cover it up.
Teel has pleaded not guilty, and his attorney would not comment.
(on camera): If they had listened, do you think that Jessie Williams would be
DEDEAUX: Yes, I do. Yes, I do.
KOCH (voice-over): As for jail officials, Sheriff Payne issued a statement,
saying that he is fully cooperating in all investigations related to the Williams
case, and that many changes were made after his death: among them, a new
warden, revised use of force and taser policies, tougher screening for new
hires, additional supervisors, and expanded training programs. But former
jailer, Preston Wills, insists many guards responsible for beatings still control
WILLS: There's still a lot of people in there right now that they need to get in
trouble. They really do, and they need to really be looked at very closely.
They don't need to be there, period.
KOCH: And all of this had happened before 21-year-old Lee Demond Smith
was brought to the jail. It was ten months after Williams' deadly beating, well
after those safeguards were supposedly put in place.
On his 13th day in jail, Smith's mother received some frightening calls, from
families of other inmates, saying something terrible had happened.
LASHUN SMITH: They said that he was -- they saw officers covering his body
with a white sheet.
KOCH: Stunned, Smith's aunt called the jail.
SHYRI SMITH, LEE SMITH'S AUNT: I wanted to know is anything wrong with
my nephew. She said, "There's nothing wrong with your nephew."
And then I said, "Well, let me speak with him."
She said, "You know you can't speak to the inmate." She was so rude, and
she said, "There have not been any deaths at the Harrison County jail."
KOCH: Smith's mother raced to the jail, demanding answers about her son.
Instead, she says she got lies.
LASHUN SMITH: When I got there, you know, they kept denying it, denying it,
KOCH: Finally, the warden came in and delivered the awful news: her son
(on camera): The death investigation report by the district attorney's office
and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations states that witnesses said Lee
Smith collapsed in a TV room at the jail. They say he began having seizures,
became unresponsive, and then paramedics were called.
(voice-over) The county autopsy found that Lee Smith died of natural causes,
of, quote, "massive recent pulmonary embolism," a blood clot in the lung. But
the young man had never had any health problems.
Then, as if in confirmation of his family's worst fears, Smith's grandmother
had a disturbing dream.
LUCY WILLIAMS, LEE SMITH'S GRANDMOTHER: He said, "Mama, I was
murdered. They killed me." And it just ran chills all through my body. I just
woke up instantly.
COOPER: Up next: questioning the autopsy, what an expert said the medical
examiner missed -- the conclusion of Kathleen's investigation.
COOPER: A young man walks into a jail and leaves in a body bag. What or
who killed Lee Demond Smith is in dispute.
But, to his mother and his grandmother, the truth is clear. The killers, they
allege, were corrections officers, guards already under a cloud of suspicion.
Now, before the break, we laid out the investigation. Would the autopsy,
however, confirm their worst suspicions? We're "Keeping Them Honest."
CNN's Kathleen Koch concludes her exclusive investigation.
KOCH (voice-over): Lee Demond Smith's family was suspicious, suspicious
that the 21-year-old's sudden death in the Harrison County jail may have
been foul play, that the blood clot described as the cause of death by the
county autopsy was a lie.
Friends helped raise $9,000 for an independent autopsy. It was conducted by
forensic pathologist Dr. Matthias Okoye.
DR. MATTHIAS OKOYE, FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST: He was strangled and
he was restrained while being strangled.
KOCH: Doctor Okoye's finding is scathing: asphyxia, due to neck
compression and physical restraint while in police custody.
Doctor Okoye discovered hemorrhaging two inches deep on the right side of
Smith's neck and showed us pictures of the wound. He also found multiple
injuries on Smith's head, trunk, arms and legs.
OKOYE: That means that there must have been a struggle. There must have
been an altercation, because these are minor blunt force traumatic injuries,
scattered all over the body.
KOCH (on camera): So you found he was being restrained. He was strangled.
So you're saying he was murdered?
OKOYE: Yes, and that is homicide.
KOCH (voice-over): But what about the county's official explanation that Smith
died of a blood clot in the lungs? Dr. Okoye says the only way to prove a
death because of a blood clot is to dissect the lungs. He says that never
OKOYE: I was shocked, actually. Even my assistants were shocked.
KOCH: Dr. Paul McGarry, the forensic pathologist who performed that first
autopsy for the county, would not return CNN's calls.
(on camera): Gary Hargrove, the Harrison County coroner, as well as two
detectives from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, were present during
the first autopsy, conducted in this building. Hargrove says the lungs were
So what did you see when he opened up the lungs?
GARY HARGROVE, HARRISON COUNTY CORONER: Massive blood clots in
the lungs and in the veins and stuff.
KOCH (voice-over): When CNN asked Hargrove for the photos of his autopsy,
he refused. And when we offered Hargrove a copy of the second
independent autopsy and photos, he wouldn't look at them or comment on
the findings unless the family provided them. Fearing the county could
somehow use the details to cover wrongdoing, the Smith's family lawyers
advised against that.
(on camera): How do you reconcile this with what you found?
HARGROVE: All I can rely on at this point in time is the autopsy that we
performed, the information that we have about the events surrounding Mr.
Smith's death, what the investigation showed.
KOCH: So you saw no marks on his neck?
KOCH: No hemorrhaging?
KOCH (voice-over): The cause of the autopsy findings were so dramatically
different, CNN took them to a third forensic pathologist for yet another opinion.
Dr. Howard Adelman examined both written reports, as well as more than 200
photos from the second independent autopsy.
HOWARD ADELMAN, FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST: The photographs are very
convincing along with the description, and so I would go along with the cause
of death being a strangulation.
KOCH (on camera): Are you and Dr. McGery (ph) involved in any kind of
cover-up to hide a murder, the murder of Lee Smith in the Harris County jail,
if indeed he was murdered there?
HARGROVE: No, we're not. I have not ever covered up a death and will not
do it today or any other time. Because when it comes to that, it's time to get
out of the business.
KOCH (voice-over): In fact, the sheriff's statement says the county coroner's
autopsy did not reveal any foul play. Though critics wonder about the sheriff's
own record supervising the jail.
MICHAEL CROSBY, ATTORNEY FOR JESSIE WILLIAMS' FAMILY: How could
a sheriff be in charge of a jail for this many years and not know what's going
on in his own jail?
KOCH (on camera): And it sounds like there's not an isolated act anymore. It
sounds like there is a clear pattern.
CROSBY: We've been able to put together the evidence to show that it was,
in fact, a pattern of abuse that took place over a long period of time.
KOCH (voice-over): Lee Damond Smith (ph) is buried not far from his Biloxi
home. His family says they won't rest until they confront those who killed him.
S. SMITH: We want the world to know, the nation to know what's going on in
Mississippi, so therefore, this may save someone else's son.
KOCH: Kathleen Koch, CNN, Biloxi, Mississippi.
COOPER: Kathleen's reporting raised a lot more questions. I talked about
some of them with CNN's senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.
COOPER: How could this go on in the county jail?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: As bad as this story is, and it's
horrifying, it's actually worse. Because in 1995, the U.S. Department of
Justice came in and worked out a consent decree where they were supposed
to have some sort of supervision.
Yet these people keep dying, even though the U.S. Department of Justice
was supposed to be looking at what's going on.
COOPER: And they recently settled a civil lawsuit in the Jesse Williams case
for something like...
TOOBIN: Three million dollars.
COOPER: $3.5 million. Obviously, in a post Katrina economy for this area,
that's a big blow.
TOOBIN: You know, our producer in this story, Catherine Mitchell (ph), says
there are 14 lawsuits outstanding against -- against this county jail. So as
immoral and horrible as this is, it's also economically a disaster for a county
that obviously can't afford it. COOPER: Jeffrey Toobin, it's just unbelievable.
We continue to follow the case. Jeff, thanks.
SAN DIEGO EDUCATION REPORT