East Texas Justice BY LOUIS DUBOSE THE BEST WITNESS,” one East Texas criminal lawyer said, “is dead. And how do you find a disinterested witness among the officers who are under investigation? So you’re left with somebody else who might haye been in jail at the time and he’s discredited because he was a prisoner. It’s always going to be hard to get an indictment.” So it went in the grand jury investigation of the March 16 jailhouse death “death in custody” of Kenneth Earl Simpson in Cleveland, Texas. And in this case, the only witness, other than the police officers under investigation, was an 18-year-old held in the adjacent cell and charged with stealing two cartons of cigarettes.. After three-and-a-half days of testimony, 28 witnesses, and an hour-and-a-half of deliberation, a Liberty County grand jury returned no indictments against the eleven officers who handled Simpson on the March night when he was found dead, lying handcuffed and face-down on the floor of the Cleveland city jail. Simpson, an unemployed 30-year-old construction worker and drug informant, had been arrested after he was accused of stealing a police officer’s ball point pen \(TO, Cleveland City Councilman Randy Mitchmore said he had spoken with a member of the grand jury, whom he did not identify, and was told that the decision was unanimous: all twelve members of the grand jury, which included three blacks, had voted against indicting any officer. Members of the black community in Cleveland are bewildered by the grand jury’s ruling. According to Albert Thomas, a postal worker and black community leader, given what was known about the case many thought someone would have been indicted: Simpson, according to an autopsy conducted by Harris County pathologist Aurelio Espinola, died of asphyxiation due to trauma to the neck. A week after Simpson’s death, Cleveland Justice of the Peace Charlie Morgan, who had met with Espinola on the morning of the press conference where Morgan announced the pathologist’s findings, said that the pathologist suggested that bruises on Simpson’s neck had been caused by hands. Morgan placed his own hands to his throat to demonstrate the position of the bruises. Espinola later indicated that Morgan’s statement was perhaps a result of a misunderstanding. Willis Shedd, the 18-year-old who was in the adjacent jail cell on the night of Simpson’s death, has described for members of the Cleveland black community, the Liberty County grand jury, and the press, the sleepless night he spent hiding under a blanket on a jail cot. “I could hear him begging for his life. ‘Please, don’t kill me. I need help.’ How could I call the police for help when they were all the ones doing it?” Shedd told Houston Chronicle reporter Cindy Horswell, outside the grand jury chambers where he was called to testify. Officers had insisted that they checked on Simpson periodically on the night he died and that each time they checked on him until 4 a.m. when it was discovered that he had no pulse he was breathing and seemed to be all right. The autopsy report revealed that Simpson had died “around midnight,” shortly after his girlfriend, Linda Rushing. who was ordered from the jail by police, said that she had heard Simpson pleading with officers, then choking and coughing. A transcript of a 25-minute tape made by one of the officers in the cell, then presented to the grand jury and published by the Houston Chronicle and Cleveland Advocate details the violent nature of what occurred in the jail on the night that Kenneth Simpson died. On the transcript, officers are recorded struggling with Simpson in the cell. “Hell yeah, he can feel pain . . . baton .. .” supervising officer Captain Ike Hines is recorded as saying at one point, ” . crack his [expletive] head open.” \(Autopsy reports did not indicate that Simpson was beaten entered the cell and calmed Simpson down, there are sounds of a struggle as officers subdue and handcuff Simpson. Ten times Simpson is recorded saying “please” then Broussard asks: “You still want to fight?” As the struggle ends, officer Laverl Sweeten, who tape-recorded the incident, complains that his hair was messed up. “If I was like Darryl and Willie [two black officers] and just had wash-and-wear hair, that would be all right,” Sweeten said. The transcript indicates that the remark was followed by the officers’ laughter. “Now y’all know why they pay us such good money,” an unidentified voice says as the group leaves the cell. According to the transcript, after the struggle Simpson did not talk but groaned occasionally. \(This contradicts a claim made by Shedd that there was complete silence after the officers left ASSISTANT ATTORNEY General David Hess, who sat in on the proceedings, described the grand jury as “extremely diligent.” “I don’t think that any grand jury would have indicted the officers, given the evidence that was presented.” Hess said. “As an attorney, my feeling is that the grand jury worked.” According to Hess, the Attorney General’s office is concluding an investigation. But it is unlikely that what remains of their work will provide any information that will lead to prosecution, he said. That part of the investigation is concluded. What remains is a careful examination of the circumstances of Simpson’s death, Hess said, and of similar deaths of prisoners in custody. Then the publication of the findings along with recommendations from the Attorney General’s office for the handling of prisoners. One of the more bizarre terms to come out of the case is “positional asphyxia” which Hess described as a “cause of death recognized in the medical community which has been found to occur in correctional facilities.” It has been theorized that officers left Simpson lying face-down and in such a position that the weight of his body pressed against his neck, caused a lack of oxygen, and ultimately death. Some are still not buying it. Simpson’s family has retained Houston attorney Deborah Frye who has filed a civil rights claim against Liberty County \(whose of Cleveland, in federal court in Beaumont. And the U.S. Department of Justice is also reviewing the findings of an FBI investigation. In Cleveland, all nine of the city police officers who had been suspended with pay were recently reinstated and are back at work. “They only seem to come into the black community when they have two officers in a car,” Albert Thomas said. According to Thomas, before the Simpson killing, officers usually patrolled alone. Midway through the transcript of the tape made in the cell shortly before Kenneth Simpson’s death, an unidentified officer asks: “Who’s going to be held responsible?” Two months after Kenneth Simpson died, handcuffed and shackled in a East Texas jail, the question remains unanswered. 0 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9
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