Jail death settlement: $1.45M
Daughters of James Carpenter to get $350,000 each
By STEVE MYERS and JOE DANBORN
Two teenage daughters of James Carpenter, a mentally ill inmate who died
from a flesh-eating bacteria in the Mobile County jail three years ago,
will receive about $350,000 each in a partial settlement of a lawsuit over
their father's death.
Carpenter's death revealed serious problems at the jail. Though jail
officials have said they've improved things, the fallout is ongoing. The
U.S. Department of Justice is investigating jail conditions and has named
several topics that were at issue during Carpenter's incarceration.
The total payout is $1.45 million -- the maximum under the insurance
policies that cover the county, Sheriff Jack Tillman and jail employees,
according to lawyers who presented the plan to a federal judge on
The county is insured for $1 million, if it pays $100,000 of the claim. An
insurer for an unnamed jail employee paid $350,000. Lawyers refused to say
who the individual is. Only three jail employees had their own
The other half of the $1.45 million is proposed to be paid to the
plaintiffs' lawyers: Griffin Sikes Jr. and Frank Hawthorne Jr. of
Montgomery and Robert F. "Cowboy Bob" Clark of Mobile. Clark said Mobile
lawyer Dom Soto will get a cut as well.
U.S. District Judge Charles R. Butler Jr. said the overall settlement
amount was fine with him, but he wanted to consider the attorneys' fees
further before approving them.
Contingency fees are more typically in the range of 30 to 40 percent, but
plaintiffs lawyers said in Wednesday's hearing this type of civil rights
litigation is difficult to win. To underscore that point, Clark said he
brought the case to three big-name local law firms -- Cunningham, Bounds,
Yance, Crowder & Brown; Jackson Taylor & Martino; and Moore & Wolfe -- but
was turned down.
"We believe it is a good settlement that is in the best interests of the
children, and it is a fair settlement to both parties," Sikes told Butler.
Sikes said state and federal laws protecting government entities can make
it difficult for plaintiffs to recover money in cases like this. Cashing
in on an agency's insurance policy is the best that most plaintiffs can
hope for, he said.
When that happens, Sikes said, "You are pretty much at the bottom of the
well in terms of what you can reasonably take from that particular
defendant. ... In this case, we took it all."
Carpenter was arrested in July 2000 on misdemeanor charges for panhandling
outside a fast-food restaurant.
Sikes described Carpenter as an itinerant preacher and a decent father who
remembered the birthdays of his daughters, now 14 and 17. Sikes also
acknowledged that Carpenter had fallen on hard times and had mental
problems, having been diagnosed as psychotic the day before his final
"He was hard-pressed to provide for himself, your honor," Sikes said. "He
essentially was one of society's broken people for the last five years of
Dana Carpenter, the administrator of the inmate's estate, wept slightly as
Sikes described her ex-husband. After the hearing, she hugged Clark and
said the settlement brought some comfort, but that the case was only half
over because the city and state defendants remain.
"The only question the children had, like any children would have, is
yeah, they've got the money, but they haven't seen anybody punished for
what happened to their father," she said.
A lawyer was appointed to represent the interests of the two daughters
because they are minors. That lawyer, Banks Ladd, said he thought the
settlement was in their best interests.
When the money is distributed, a conservator will be appointed to oversee
the accounts for the girls until they reach adulthood.
Discussion of attorneys' fees and the difficulty of winning the case
occupied most of the 40-minute hearing.
Complicating matters from the plaintiffs' standpoint, Sikes said, was the
fact that all of the witnesses were also defendants in the lawsuit. He
also alluded to several investigations that identified breakdowns in
procedures at the jail while simultaneously failing to blame any
particular people for Carpenter's death.
"We have a case where all of the defendants see no evil, speak no evil,
heard no evil," Sikes told Butler.
Some of the details of Carpenter's 15-day incarceration, according to
Sheriff's Department reports and court filings:
He spent most of that time in solitary confinement, naked and shackled on
his ankles and wrists. Wounds caused by those restraints, according to his
autopsy, provided the entry points for the bacteria that killed him.
He never received psychiatric care, though jail employees said they were
well aware of his mental state.
He never saw a city judge for a bond hearing.
Inmates reported that Carpenter was handcuffed to his bed and unable to
reach his food, though guards said he refused to let them remove his
handcuffs to eat. He lost 23 pounds in the jail, according to one
Sheriff's Department report.
There is little indication that guards checked on Carpenter several times
an hour as required. Carpenter's body lay in his cell for hours before it
No jail employees were ever disciplined in the case, though a report said
that 32 jail employees, including the now-retired deputy warden, were
responsible for Carpenter's death because they did not follow jail
Even though it has not gone to trial, this case has seen its share of
litigation. Lawyers have argued over admitting the confidential sheriff's
reports, and defense lawyers sought to have Sikes sanctioned for later
introducing the reports.
Jim Rossler, representing the Sheriff's Department, said that the
settlement "wipes the slate clean."
DOM SOTO'S HOMEPAGE