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Strickland v. Clarke

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

January 13, 2014

KIM M. STRICKLAND, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE AND ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF AARON A. COOPER, Plaintiff,
v.
HAROLD W. CLARKE, ET AL., Defendants.

Mary Lynn Tate, Tate Law PC, Abingdon, Virginia, for Plaintiff; Kate E. Dwyre and Lara Kate Jacobs Todd, Assistant Attorneys General, Office of the Attorney General of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, for Defendants John Jabe, John S. Garman, Tracy Ray, Richard Rowlette, Leslie Fleming, Lafayette Fleming, James Bentley, J. Rick Wiandt, and Tony Adams; Cameron S. Bell, Penn, Stuart & Eskridge, Abingdon, Virginia, for Defendant Travis McCoy; and Joseph R. Carico, Carl E. McAfee, P.C., Norton, Virginia, for Defendants Tracy Gilmore (Baird), Brian Meade, Robert Mullins, and Heather Halsey.

OPINION AND ORDER

James P. Jones, United States District Judge.

The plaintiff’s decedent, Aaron A. Cooper, was murdered in 2010 by a fellow inmate at a Virginia prison. In this action under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 (West 2012), the plaintiff seeks money damages against certain state prison officials and employees on the ground that they violated the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution by their deliberate indifference to Cooper’s safety. She asserts three separate claims: a failure to protect Cooper (“Count One”); supervisory liability based on indifference to or tacit authorization of the subordinate misconduct that resulted in the failure to protect Cooper (“Count Two”); and a conspiracy to violate Cooper’s civil rights (“Count Three”).[1] Following discovery, the defendants have now each moved for summary judgment in their favor on all counts. For the following reasons, I will grant summary judgment in favor of all of the defendants.

I. Factual Background.

The following facts taken from the summary judgment record are either undisputed or, where disputed, are stated in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.

Robert C. Gleason, Jr., an inmate at Red Onion State Prison, located in this judicial district, murdered plaintiff’s decedent Cooper on July 28, 2010. Gleason was prosecuted for the murder, pleaded guilty, and was executed by the state in 2013, after this suit was filed.[2] He was deposed by the parties in the case a few weeks prior to his execution.[3]

The murder occurred in the following manner. The two inmates, confined in the prison’s segregation unit, had been placed alone in adjoining locked recreation cages that shared a common wire fence. At some point, Cooper willingly allowed Gleason to place a noose, made from a braided length of bed sheet, around his neck through the fence. Gleason contended in his deposition that he had convinced Cooper to agree to the noose under the pretense that they were colluding to sue the prison authorities for a feigned attack on Cooper.[4] Gleason then proceeded to strangle the unsuspecting Cooper to death against the shared fence.

Cooper and Gleason had been placed in the recreation cages by defendant Correctional Officers Brian Meade and Robert Mullins. Officers Heather Halsey and Jamie Burke[5] were also assigned to Building A4-5, where both inmates were housed. Burke was stationed in a control room that overlooked the recreation cages and contained video monitors, and defendant Halsey was completing rounds in the building, although she relieved Burke from his post at some point during her shift. Defendant Tracy Baird (also named Tracy Gilmore) was the Building Sergeant.

In 2009 Gleason had murdered another inmate, his cellmate Harvey Watson, Jr., at another state prison. In a court appearance related to the Watson murder, Gleason stated he would kill other inmates unless he was sentenced to death. He later told Major Leslie Fleming, the prison’s Chief of Security, and Warden Tracy Ray, both defendants in this case, that he would kill again if he were not permitted to take recreation and shower time alone. On at least one occasion in mid-July 2010, inmate Martin Rodgers indicated to defendants J. Rick Wiandt, James Bentley, and Tony Adams that “there were going to be problems on the recreation yard.”[6] (Adams Aff. ¶ 4, ECF No. 50-5.) Rodgers refused to comment further or give any more information as to what the problems were to be or who was to cause them, and Bentley reported Rodgers’ statement to defendant Lieutenant Travis McCoy. Gleason, in his deposition, opined that prison officials “all knew what was going on.” (Gleason Dep. 22:24, Jan. 3, 2013, ECF No. 75-1.) In addition, Gleason claimed that other inmates knew he intended to kill Cooper. Cooper, on the other hand, was not aware that he was in danger, and, in fact, he believed he and Gleason were friends. Gleason indicated that, as late as June 2010, he had not intended to kill Cooper but instead another fellow inmate named Derek Darden.

On the day of the murder, after placing the two inmates in recreation cages at approximately 12:29 P.M., Officer Mullins went on lunch break, leaving Officers Halsey and Meade on the floor of Building A4-5. However, Meade was called to another building, and Halsey was then the sole officer on the floor while Cooper and Gleason were in the recreation cages. It is not clear whether Burke or Halsey were present in the control room at the time of the murder. Burke was stationed in the control room, but Halsey relieved him at some point and Gleason recalled that Halsey had been in the control room at the time of these events.[7] Gleason claimed that Halsey had opened a window overlooking the recreation cages while the braided sheet was visible, but had closed it without taking any action. Accompanied by another officer, Halsey entered the recreation yard to return the inmates to their cells at approximately 1:50 P.M., and upon discovering Cooper’s body, Halsey radioed Sergeant Gilmore and a medical unit. Soon after, defendant Lieutenant Lafayette Fleming entered the recreation yard, and defendant Lieutenant McCoy video recorded the scene. Although he recalled that McCoy laughed while recording, Gleason conceded that this was the extent of Fleming’s and McCoy’s involvement.

The plaintiff alleges that it was through a common practice of trading between officers and inmates that Gleason was able to secure what was necessary to murder Cooper:

Gleason arranged for another inmate to make a braided necklace/noose. Gleason then conspired with Defendants Halsey, Meade, Mullins, Ball, and they with other defendants, to orchestrate a rec time without the required strip search, designation of the inmates Gleason wanted to be pulled for rec time with him and their placement in specific cages with Cooper placed next to him. Gleason and these defendants then conspired with defendants Lt. McCoy, Lt. Fleming, and Sergeant Gilmore and Three Unknown Correctional Officers to create the absences necessary for no officer to view or enter the rec yard during Gleason’s project and to falsify the head count.

(Compl. ¶ 29, ECF No. 1.) Gleason’s deposition serves as the sole evidentiary basis for these allegations. In his deposition testimony, Gleason claimed that, while engaged in trading, Halsey had instructed him to write down the names of inmates he wanted in the recreation cages, and she subsequently showed the list to Meade and Mullins.[8] He indicated further that, in exchange for favors, he had not been searched fully before being taken by Meade and Mullins to the recreation cage, and because a proper search had not been conducted, he was able to conceal the braided sheet inside a long-sleeved shirt he had carried to the recreation cage. He opined that the officers had been motivated in part by dislike for Cooper, recalling their making light of his murder after ...


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