By Robin Fornoff
The only jail lawsuit Curry County hasn’t settled out of court in at least the last six years ended Friday with a deadlocked jury and District Judge David Reeb declaring a mistrial.
Jurors who spent almost nine noisy hours deliberating notified Reeb just before 1 p.m. that they couldn’t reach a majority decision in the civil case filed by John Landon Lee Hall, 26, who was beaten by other inmates while incarcerated in the county jail on drug charges.
Deliberations were loud. Court bailiffs turned up music on portable radios in the courtroom throughout much of it to obscure a cacophony of voices coming from behind the jury room door.
Hall was demanding at least $250,000 in damages for the April 2009 assault. He claimed the county failed to protect him, then failed to get him medical attention in a timely manner after the assault.
The county’s attorney, Jonlyn Martinez of Albuquerque, said Hall was a sore loser who arranged a fight with another inmate and bragged when he won the brawl. Hall was attacked by at least four inmates immediately after the showdown, suffering broken cheek bones, a broken nose, a concussion and cuts that required his lip to be surgically stapled.
Hall lay in his cell beaten, bloody and drifting in and out of consciousness for almost two hours before an understaffed jail crew discovered him, according to his attorney Marna Trammell and her co-counsel Shaun Burns.
Trammell said Hall will request a new trial. She also said the 12 jurors came within one vote of the required majority of 10 needed in civil cases to find the county liable for damages.
Trammell’s assessment was confirmed by one juror, Misty Bertrand of Clovis.
Bertrand said jurors were at 9-3 to find for Hall when they resumed deliberations Friday morning. She said as deliberations progressed, jurors got hung up on definitions of some of the words in Reeb’s instructions and drifted further apart.
One in a series of notes passed between Reeb and the jury foreman had jurors asking if the judge would define “timely.” Reeb answered that jurors were to “rely on the instructions provided and the evidence in your possession.”
Bertrand said the question centered around an instruction that said if jurors determined the county hadn’t provided medical care in a timely fashion, they must find the county liable. Bertrand said jurors had conflicting evidence that Hall wasn’t found by staff ranging from one to two hours after the assault.
“Proving liability was difficult,” said Bertrand.
Bertrand also said it seemed jurors were split along gender lines — with women on the jury being more sympathetic toward Hall. She said jurors ultimately began comparing the county and Hall to the responsibility a school teacher has to their students.
“When they are with the teacher, the students and their safety are the teacher’s responsibility,” said Bertrand.
Bertrand said jurors took five votes during the nine hours and it eventually became clear they would never get 10 votes for either side.
County Manager Lance Pyle said the trial is the first jail lawsuit the county hasn’t settled before trial since he was appointed in 2007.
A 2012 CNJ series determined 22 lawsuits were filed against the county and jail since 2005 and its insurance provider had settled all for a total of more than $1 million.
“The county elected not to settle on this one and to have a jury of Curry County residents make the determination,” said Pyle.
“It was a difficult issue for this jury,” said Martinez.