Law-enforcement personnel are our line of protection against crime and misconduct. They’re tough, self-reliant, and trained to handle a variety of difficult situations. But when it comes to seeking justice in the legal system, police need representation just like the rest of us.
Transferring a dangerous prisoner
Katherine Thompson* was a dedicated deputy who had been working for the county sheriff’s department for several years. One day, she was instructed to pick up an inmate at a prison facility and transfer him to the county courthouse. It was supposed to be a routine procedure.
Katherine had been assigned to transfer Derek Randall,* a career criminal who had served a 10-year sentence for shooting a Cleveland-area police officer. After his release he drifted around Ohio committing various crimes, until his attempt to rob a convenience store backfired. In a combined effort by the store owner and angry citizens, Randall was detained long enough for the police to arrive and make an arrest.
During the attempted robbery, the convenience store owner fired a shot at Randall. The bullet just grazed Randall’s head and he was taken to a hospital to receive medical attention for the wound before being taken to jail. When doctors determined he was fit to be released, he was discharged in a wheelchair (which is common for anyone who has suffered a head injury).
It is standard procedure for prison personnel to ask a number of questions to assess the inmate’s psychological and physical health during the admittance process. When Randall was questioned about his wheelchair, he told them he’d been shot and was unable to walk. Randall was allowed to keep his wheelchair.
When the prison doctor examined Randall, he found no physical reason for him to need the wheelchair. He noted in Randall’s medical record that he suffered from “hysterical paralysis.” The doctor then made a serious mistake: He failed to apprise anyone—the guards or other medical staff—of Randall’s suspicious paralysis.
When Katherine arrived at the facility to pick up Randall, she too was unaware of his “paralysis.” She asked about his condition, but she was simply told that the doctor said he needed a wheelchair.
Katherine drove Randall to the courthouse’s secure underground parking area, helped him out of the van (with his wheelchair), and accompanied him to the security door—following procedure every step of the way.
As they waited at the door, Randall suddenly sprang up out of the wheelchair and grabbed for Katherine’s gun. His need for the wheelchair had been an act all along.
Katherine wrestled with him to keep possession of her firearm and, in the process, managed to call for help on her radio. Randall overpowered Katherine and began pounding her head into the concrete.
Before Randall was able to wrest the firearm from her, Katherine released her gun’s ammunition clip. That act of composure saved her life. Later, video footage would show Randall standing over Katherine, aiming the gun at her head, and pulling the trigger—but because the clip was released, the gun jammed and did not fire.
Katherine lost consciousness, and Randall escaped with her gun and ammunition clip. As he searched for a way out of the parking garage, he encountered Berry Colston*, a young man who had just left the courthouse after paying a traffic ticket. Randall took Berry hostage at gunpoint and demanded that he drive them out of the courthouse.
Once outside, they heard a helicopter—the police were out in full force searching for Randall. As he monitored his own manhunt on the radio, Randall learned the police had a description of Berry’s pickup truck. He needed to change vehicles. After parking near a car Randall thought he could steal, he told Berry to crouch down so that he wouldn’t be able to see and identify the next getaway vehicle. Randall then shot Berry twice in the head.
In the end, police were able to track and arrest Randall—they eventually found him hiding in a tree. Charged with the assault of Katherine Thompson and murder of Berry Colston, Randall was convicted and sentenced to death.
Katherine suffered serious physical injuries from the assault, including broken bones in her face. But there were psychological wounds as well. In addition to the terror of having been physically assaulted and almost killed, Katherine felt deep remorse that her gun was the weapon used to kill Berry Colston. The sheriff’s department, embarrassed by the media’s attention, insinuated that the escape had occurred because Katherine hadn’t performed her job properly—which left her with feelings of anxiety and betrayal.
Burdened by the psychological toll of the incident and its aftermath, Katherine saw no alternative but to retire from law enforcement. In need of legal representation regarding workers’ compensation and medical bills, she contacted us.
What went wrong? Civil litigation attorneys unearth the facts
Other civil litigation attorneys may have shied away from this case. A deputy filing suit against the sheriff’s department could be seen by some as Katherine’s attempt to blame somebody else for Randall’s escape. We took the case, in spite of its potential difficulties, and when we dug in to the facts, it became clear that Katherine had not only performed her job admirably under the circumstances, but was being scapegoated for this tragedy.
What immediately stood out to us was the negligence of the doctor at the jail facility. He knew there was no physical reason for Randall to need a wheelchair, yet he failed to notify other medical and corrections staff. As a doctor working in a prison, this information should have been a serious cause for alarm.
The sheriff’s department was also to blame for its failure to follow its own procedure. First, it did not provide critical information about the prisoner to Katherine. She should have been made aware of Randall’s previous criminal record, including his time served for shooting a police officer. Second, sending Katherine alone to Randall’s transfer was a major breach of protocol.
This point was significant, as it related to a troubling problem we discovered in the sheriff’s department: It had the reputation of being a good old boys club that treated female deputy sheriffs unfairly. There were complaints, for example, of female deputies routinely being assigned tasks nobody else wanted to do. Assigning Katherine to do the transfer without a second officer put her in an awkward position: She could either follow her superior’s directions, even though they went against established procedure, or she could ask for the required second officer to assist her, in which case other officers would imply that she couldn’t handle the task on her own.
The sheriff’s department’s hostility toward women was further evidenced in the aftermath of the escape, when their spokespeople suggested that if a man had conducted the transfer instead of Katherine, none of this would ever have happened.
Given the surprising information we uncovered in discovery, we widened the lawsuit to include the sheriff’s department and the negligent prison doctor.
The justice Katherine deserves
The case went to trial and the jury sided with Katherine. She was awarded a significant sum, which helped her get back on her feet financially and start a new career outside of law enforcement.
The ability for Katherine to sit in front of a jury and explain her side of the story had a profound positive effect on her—even more so after the jury essentially said through its verdict, “We hear you, and we believe you.” That kind of vindication and acceptance is invaluable, especially considering the guilt Katherine had been struggling with over Berry’s death.
The verdict also offered a benefit to the community: As a consequence of Katherine’s lawsuit, procedural changes were enacted to ensure that necessary medical information will be provided by the prison to law enforcement personnel before prisoner transfers. Hopefully there will never again be an incident like this in our community.
The road to healing
Katherine, we are pleased to say, is doing much better now. After leaving law enforcement, she started a successful real estate business. We’ve been in contact with her since her career change, and she’s told us the work we did for her changed her life. Feedback like that is gratifying beyond measure. It’s what motivates us to do this kind of work.
People often assume that civil litigation attorneys are solely concerned with obtaining money for their clients, but, as can be seen in Katherine’s case, true justice involves much more than awards or settlements. Justice is about restoration and healing. It’s about helping people who have been knocked off their path by terrible, unanticipated circumstances, then helping them recover so they can continue on that path—or venture on a new one.
We often work with clients who suffer from debilitating feelings of guilt or isolation after an unexpected tragedy, even though they’ve done nothing wrong. We spend a lot of time talking with our clients, and letting them express how they feel. Combine that with the opportunity to tell their story to a jury and have their innocence reaffirmed, and you have a powerful recipe for healing.
*Names in this article have been changed to protect our client’s privacy.
The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.