Juvenile Justice

Published — May 6, 2014 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Abuse in court? Deputy strikes boy in court, boy charged with assault

Tennessee judge, sheriff’s department behavior under scrutiny


Cocke County Courthouse in Newport, Tennessee (Dwight Burdette/Wikimedia Commons)

Usually, it’s the judge who decides how to handle a kid in court who’s accused of an offense.

But in eastern Tennessee, a lawsuit filed on April 24 alleges that it was a court bailiff — a sheriff’s deputy — who meted out an instant physical penalty last year in the middle of a juvenile court proceeding. The alleged incident took place in Cocke County, a region near Knoxville that has struggled in recent years with FBI investigations and multiple allegations of law enforcement corruption and abuse and judicial impropriety.

Bailiff Jim Huskey is accused in the federal lawsuit of walking across a Cocke County courtroom in April 2013 and allegedly striking a 14-year-old boy in the face after the teen uttered comments the boy’s mother agreed were disrespectful to the presiding judge. The boy, identified as D.W., was in court on a minor misdemeanor charge related to underage alcohol consumption, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Greenville, Tenn.

Judge John A. Bell (tncourts.gov)

After the boy entered a plea in court that day, the suit claims, Cocke County Judge John A. Bell “repeatedly badgered” and “threatened D.W. with contempt” if he did not reveal who provided him with alcohol. When the boy refused to disclose information and uttered the disrespectful comments, according to the suit, Huskey crossed the room and hit the boy. The judge ordered D.W. removed, the suit claims, and four deputies allegedly wrestled the boy to the ground and took him out of court.

“The blow to the face was loud enough to be heard throughout the courtroom and left a red mark on D.W.’s face,” according to the complaint. “At no time before bailiff Huskey struck D.W. was D.W. violent or did he pose a threat to anyone.”

The civil-rights complaint is filed against Huskey and the Cocke County Sheriff’s Department. It alleges that the bailiff committed battery and violated D.W.’s constitutional rights by using excessive, unnecessary force. The suit is also claims that the relatively small — and historically troubled — Cocke County Sheriff’s Department has “maintained a policy or practice of encouraging the use of needless force to intimidate citizens.”

The boy’s mother, Christi Williford, believes a security camera was rolling the day her son was in court and captured the incident. But when Williford spoke in person the next day with a sheriff’s department detective, he refused to give her a copy of the security video, according to the suit. The detective allegedly told Williford that he had heard about the incident, viewed the tape and decided no further action was warranted.

Williford then asked the Cocke County District Attorney’s office to take action, which it did not, the lawsuit alleges. But because she pursued action against the deputy, Williford claims in the suit, the department retaliated against her son — by accusing the boy of assault.

“The day after Christi Williford filed a criminal complaint against bailiff Huskey for striking her son, she learned that D.W. was charged with assaulting the sheriff’s deputies who removed him from the courtroom,” according to the lawsuit.

A deputy at the Cocke County Sheriff’s Department said the department had no comment on the suit. The deputy, who would not give his name, said that Huskey has found another job and no longer works at the department. Cocke County Attorney Carter Moore did not respond to calls for comment either, but a local radio station reported that Moore said the case has been sent to the county’s “liability carrier.”

An assistant to Judge Bell — who presides over general sessions and juvenile court — also said that Bell declined to comment on the allegations.

Cocke County Assistant Public Defender Keith Haas told the Center for Public Integrity that another public defender, Brad Davidson, was in court that day defending D.W. “He was a witness to the slap,” Haas said. “He was sitting right there.”

Haas said that Davidson told other public defenders that same day that he saw the bailiff strike the boy, and that a “commotion” broke out, Haas said, and deputies dragged the boy from court. Haas said Davidson also told colleagues he heard a group of deputies at the courthouse subsequently “chuckling and laughing at sticking it on this poor kid.”

The incident, Haas said, was one reason Davidson decided to run against Bell in the Republican primary vote for judge Tuesday. Since no Democrat is running, the winner will take the bench.

Williford’s suit was not filed against Bell. But it does accuse Bell of doing “nothing to reprimand bailiff Huskey for striking a child in his courtroom without need or provocation.”

Assistant D.A. Brownlow Marsh told the Center that the D.A.’s policy is not to comment on pending litigation. However, he said, it wouldn’t help Williford to complain directly to the D.A. because that office doesn’t pursue prosecution unless a law enforcement agency formally asks the D.A. for action.

Rebecca Ketchie and Robert Arrington, the Kingsport, Tenn. lawyers representing Williford and her son, said that Williford has decided not to comment publicly on the suit. It seeks $250,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, attorneys’ fees and other relief the court finds appropriate.

In 2011, the Tennessee State Supreme Court upheld a disciplinary 90-day misconduct suspension of Bell that a judicial panel imposed for his handling of a lawsuit and recruiting a friend who was a lawyer to try to persuade the plaintiff in that case to drop his complaint against Bell.

In 2008, the disciplinary council for the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary accused Bell of misconduct for contracting his brother-in-law’s private probation service business to supervise adults and juveniles convicted in Bell’s court. The company provided services, supervision and mandatory drug testing, for which the convicted were required to pay fees that generated income for Bell’s family members.

The judicial complaint also accused Bell of making improper threats to hold a person in contempt of court in connection with critical remarks that the person allegedly made about the probation arrangement. As a trial began over the allegations surrounding the probation service, the judge reportedly reached an agreement to stop using his brother-in-law’s company. That ended the disciplinary proceeding.

In 2013, after a string of other scandals, a Cocke County sheriff’s deputy resigned and then pleaded guilty to charges of drug dealing following an FBI investigation. In 2006, a chief deputy pleaded guilty in connection with charges of dealing in stolen goods.

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