Is a federal grand jury taking testimony and investigating the McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office?
The county’s attorneys believe that is the case. So do attorneys for plaintiff Roper Harris, as a recent federal court filing shows.
The investigations of grand juries are usually secret. Grand jurors gather in Muskogee for five to seven days per month, where they hear evidence of federal crimes. Once they have made findings, the U.S. attorney decides whether to file formal charges stemming from those findings.
With a federal court system covered with cases arising from the McGirt decision, that process can take a few months. Then the cases move toward trial.
Attorneys for the county and for Roper Harris recently filed a joint motion, asking that the court delay a settlement conference that had been set for January.
“As the court is well aware,” they wrote, “testimonial discovery in this matter has been stayed for many months due to the ongoing criminal investigations into the underlying issues in this case. Additionally, counsel for the parties are under the belief that there may be a grand jury proceeding some time in December, 2023.”
Indeed there is. The newspaper has learned the grand jury heard from witnesses the week before Christmas, and it’s likely jurors will hear more in January.
Upon reviewing the joint request, Magistrate Judge Jason A Robertson did indeed grant the motion, moving the settlement conference that had been set for Jan. 4 to April 1.
It’s obvious why the plaintiff’s attorneys would want a delay to see if sheriff’s officers are indicted in a criminal matter. After all, a criminal offense involving their client as victim could greatly help their chances at getting a large settlement offer, and if that doesn’t work out, could help their chances at trial.
But why would attorneys for sheriff’s officers, the jail trust and county commissioners want such a delay?
The answer could be affected by the county’s tort liability insurance policy with ACCO (Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma).
Under terms of that policy, attorneys are provided to defend civil lawsuits brought against the county, and the insurance company may pay up to $1 million for either settlements or awards at jury trial.
But the insurance policy only covers the legal actions by county officers. If county officials break the law, the insurance company does not have to pay, and financial liability then falls directly onto county government and taxpayers.
In Oklahoma, a court judgment against a government goes on the property tax rolls and is paid over the course of three years through higher property taxes during that period.
Therefore, if county officers are accused of actual crimes, it’s very much in the insurance carrier’s interest to see that process move forward.
But for taxpayers, the opposite may be the case. A quick settlement before officials are formally accused of crimes would likely incur less financial pain on taxpayers, with the insurance company paying up to $1 million of the settlement.
The Roper Harris case is one of four trials scheduled for 2024 that involves the sheriff’s office, jail or both.
The insurance carrier is liable for up to $1 million on each case, while plaintiffs in those cases are seeking a total of tens of millions of dollars in actual and punitive damages.
The situation is complicated even further by defendant Alicia Manning’s seeking to invoke the Fifth Amendment and refuse to testify in the Harris case.
The Fifth Amendment is reserved for criminal cases, not civil cases, but Manning and her attorneys believe she has indeed been the focus of a criminal investigation since May, and for that reason, they argue she should not be compelled to testify in a deposition.
A refusal to testify can adversely affect the outcome of a civil case, however, as well as the ability to appeal that outcome.
Details of the case
The events that led to the Roper Harris federal lawsuit occurred on Sept. 15-16, 2021.
On the evening of Sept. 15, defendants Kevin Clardy, Alicia Manning and Richard Williamson showed up at Roper’s home in Broken Bow to arrest him.
Roper claims that he was handcuffed, then forcibly yanked and shoved down a flight of stairs, then slammed face down onto a concrete sidewalk.
Once Roper arrived at the county jail, he alleges that jail personnel allowed him to be beaten by other inmates and then refused to allow him to get medical attention.
Roper’s attorneys claim that the jail has a long-standing culture and practice of disregarding its written policies and allowing personnel to use excessive force on inmates that pose no threat.
Further, the attorneys claim the sheriff has a long-standing culture and practice of allowing his law enforcement officers to maintain secrecy and/or to falsify reports regarding such abuses.
The newspaper has learned that one key piece of evidence in the case is Alicia Manning’s body cam footage. She apparently thought the body camera had been turned off, but it had not been.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys obtained the footage, which reportedly shows Harris being shoved down the stairs, then Clardy and Manning laughing after he was injured.
Roper’s attorneys claim the beating of Roper at the jail was carried out at the express direction of jail personnel, and that Roper was shot in the eye with a pepper ball at extreme close range.
They claim Harris was left “bloody, limp, blinded/unable to see, and unconscious/semi-conscious.”
“Indeed, Harris’ urgent need for medical attention was so undeniable and obvious that when McCurtain County District Attorney Mark Matloff saw Harris’ condition on Sept. 16, he was compelled to intervene, demanding that Harris be released and taken to the hospital immediately, and proclaiming, “Why is there a 19-year-old beaten up in here with no medical attention?”