Opinion Four prison murders lead to a sickening ruling on ‘qualified immunity’
"Jacob Philip and Denver Simmons, who are serving life sentences in a South Carolina prison for unrelated double homicides, spent two and a half hours on April 7, 2017, murdering four inmates in Simmons’s cell. Simmons later said they hoped to get the death penalty. They did not, because the victims’ families objected to their getting what they supposedly wanted.
They lured John King with a promised coffee, strangled him with an extension cord, and stuffed him under a bed. Thirty minutes later, according to a court document, Simmons strangled a second inmate while Philip “stomped” on his ribs, causing them to “pop.” Thirty minutes later, they stabbed their third victim with a broken broom handle. They then used a trash bag to cover the cell door window, and invited into the cell a fourth victim, whom they strangled with their forearms, the extension cord and a broom handle. Apparently sated, they walked to the prison’s administration building and suggested that officers check Simmons’s cell.
This month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit affirmed a district court’s judgment that King’s family cannot sue to hold anyone at the prison responsible for King’s death. Herewith redundant evidence that “qualified immunity” enables government actors to violate constitutional rights with impunity.
This doctrine shields officials from accountability for civil rights violations if there is no “clearly established law” forbidding exactly, or almost exactly, what the official did. Even minor factual differences can immunize the official, on the theory that if the official’s behavior did not precisely match the fact pattern of a prior case, the official did not have fair warning that his action was wrong. The perverse effect is that the more uniquely gross the unconstitutional behavior is, the easier it is for the government official to successfully claim immunity.
King’s family asserts that his death resulted from prison officials’ being “deliberately indifferent” to the danger he was in. He was held in a prison unit for inmates with “persistent mental illness.” There Philip and Simmons, who had violent prison histories, according to the court document, were in charge of administering other inmates’ janitorial duties, and enjoyed special privileges, including unsupervised roaming from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sgt. DeWaun McKan conducted the required security checks every 30 minutes, but did not look into Simmons’s cell, as his training required. When alerted to the bodies, McKan neither checked for pulses nor performed CPR, instead radioing for help. King’s family sued McKan and various prison administrators under a theory of “supervisory liability.”
The 4th Circuit affirmed qualified immunity for everyone: “There is no clearly established constitutional right to properly conducted security checks.” From this logic-chopping tendentiousness, the court concluded that neither McKan nor others “knowingly” disregarded the law. And the Constitution’s Eighth Amendmentproscription of “cruel and unusual punishments” supposedly requires King’s family to “pinpoint” with “specificity” a “precise” constitutional right violation. The “general risks” of prison life are insufficient.
In a demolishing dissent, Judge James A. Wynn Jr. wrote that what the majority called an “atrocity” — an atrocity without a remedy? — occurred because two double-murderers could circulate through the prison unit unsupervised. McKan’s security checks were risible; he did not notice four corpses during five checks. McKan ignored the policy of instructing inmates to remove coverings of windows.
The Supreme Court has affirmed an Eighth Amendment duty “to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners.” And “deliberate indifference,” the 4th Circuit’s majority opinion noted, “is established not only when the prison official ‘knew of a substantial risk’ of serious harm, but also when the official ‘must have known’ about the risk” (the court’s emphasis added).
The 4th Circuit has held that “a prison official cannot hide behind an excuse that he was unaware of a risk, no matter how obvious.” And “there is no requirement that the very action in question must have previously been held unlawful for a reasonable official to have notice that his conduct violated that right.”
Qualified immunity has, at most, a narrow justification: protecting government actors (e.g., police officers) who must make split-second decisions in dangerous situations. Granting qualified immunity in a “failure-to-protect” case constitutes permission for lethal neglect.
Americans would gag if they had an inkling of what occurs, unreported, in prisons. Americans should, however, be sickened when judges, with hairsplitting misapplications of qualified immunity, openly abet governmental malfeasance that allows prison violence. When prisoners depend on protection by governments that cannot be held accountable for culpable indifference, mayhem proliferates, lethally.