By Kelly Kazek
A lawsuit may unearth answers in the mysterious case of a man who died after being found comatose in a south Alabama prison, where he was incarcerated for killing two Athens police officers in 2004.
The suit, filed Thursday in Montgomery County Circuit Court by an Atlanta human rights group and two Huntsville attorneys, names Mary Barksdale, mother of Farron Barksdale, as one of seven plaintiffs. The Southern Center for Human Rights, joined by Farron Barksdale defense attorney Jake Watson of Huntsville and attorney Herman Watson, seeks to “compel the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections to comply with Alabama’s Open Records Act.”
DOC Commissioner Richard Allen has denied the Barksdale family access to records relating to Farron’s incarceration and death, saying that prison records do not fall under the state’s Open Records Act, the suit states.
“We just don’t know what happened and we need to have access to these records,” said Sara Totonchi, public policy director for SCHR.
Jake Watson said Farron’s family and the public have a right to know how he died.
“They obviously love Farron and they want to know what happened to him,” he said. “They think it’s important not only for them to know, but for the public to know what’s going on behind prison walls. We are taxpayers. We pay for these prisons.”
DOC spokesman Brian Corbett, in an e-mailed statement, said access to records has been denied because state law defines inmate medical records as “privileged information.”
“Allegations that we have refused to cooperate and that no statute prohibits public disclosure of documents are simply not correct,” Corbett wrote. “In fact, there are both federal and state laws that restrict our ability to release certain documents without court order; in effect, we are being sued for following the law.”
Farron Barksdale was found comatose in his cell at Kilby Correctional Facility in Montgomery on Aug. 11 and died 10 days later at age 32 at Baptist Medical Center South. Corbett said Farron had symptoms of a systemic infection — fever and high white blood cell count —upon arriving at the hospital. His body was also bruised but Corbett said there was no evidence of an altercation at the prison. He said bruises could have been self-inflicted or caused by trauma, an accident or the infection.
An autopsy was ordered to determine the cause of death. On Sept. 7, two employees of the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences in Montgomery told a News Courier reporter the autopsy was “closed,” meaning completed, but on Sept. 11, the pathologist who performed the autopsy said that was not true and that the autopsy would not be made public until the report was completed.
The News Courier has mailed its written request and $10 fee required for a copy of the autopsy when it is made public.
The DOC is the only agency investigating the cause of Farron Barksdale’s death at one of its facilities. Spokeswomen for the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department and the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office have said their offices have not been contacted in the investigation.
Sarah Geraghty, an attorney for SCHR, said she has made numerous written requests to the DOC’s legal office, office of public information and to Commissioner Richard Allen, who is the sole defendant in the lawsuit. She said the DOC “maintains that all documents regarding any incident that occurs in prison – including incidents resulting in death or serious injury to inmates – are closed to the public and not subject to the Open Records Act.”
The DOC statement said: “Inmates’ medical records are protected by federal law, and law enforcement investigative reports, records, and writings are declared privileged communication under Alabama law, specifically Alabama Code Section 12-21-3.1(b). In addition, a 1979 Attorney General ‘s opinion provides that in the absence of a court order, persons or agencies other than criminal justice officials should not receive inmates’ files…. Although we could not release the investigative files as SCHR requested, we provided them summaries of the incident reports in all situations that could be positively identified.”
Corbett said the DOC explained its limitations under the law to SCHR lawyers and expected them to respond and “resolve this matter informally.” News of the lawsuit came as a surprise to Corbett Thursday afternoon when he was asked for comment and said he was unaware it had been filed.
Jake Watson said his goal in joining the suit is to determine what, or who, killed his client.
“They had him in their custody. According to their comments to the media, he had access to no other inmates and then he was found in a coma,” he said. “That is suspicious in itself. In light of the history of the case, the family and people of Alabama have a right to know what’s going on.”
Watson was referring to Farron Barksdale’s conviction for murdering two police officers, which gave him a reputation among law enforcement officers.
“It’s shocking to know he was down there for just a few days and was found in a coma and nobody has any real answers,” Watson said. “There’s been no cooperation. We’re supposed to live in the most humane country in the world.”
Quest for truth
Geraghty said she began her quest for access to records at Alabama prisons last October when the center received numerous reports of violence at Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, including reports of serious injuries and two deaths resulting from use of knives, ice picks, box cutters and broomstick handles.
“We received so many letters describing stabbings, beatings and assaults,” she said. “Some between prisoners and some complaints about officer brutality. People at that prison live in constant fear of bodily injury.”
Geraghty said although the state DOC did provide a summary of those incidents six months after her request, she wants to compel the state to open access to original documents at Donaldson and Kilby.
“I think we’re entitled, and citizens are entitled, to see the actual documents produced in connection with the incident,” she said. “The purpose of the Open Records Act is to protect the interest of citizens and assess the performance of officials in public institutions. The department’s actions are contrary to the spirit of open government.” Mary Barksdale, Farron’s mother, was named a plaintiff in the suit as administrator of her son’s estate.
The suit states: “Mary Barksdale would like to know what happened to her son. She seeks the prison incident report and all other Department of Corrections writings relating to the death of Farron Barksdale to determine whether there is a viable claim against employees of the Alabama Department of Corrections or others for the wrongful death of Farron Barksdale.”
Mrs. Barksdale did not return a phone call Thursday.
Farron Barksdale, diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, was transported to Kilby on Aug. 8, two days after he was sentenced to life without parole in the deaths of Athens Police Sgt. Larry Russell and Officer Tony Mims. His defense attorney said his client agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence to avoid a potential death penalty.
He was found comatose in his single-occupant cell by correctional officers during a routine head count.
Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are inmates in state prisons:
• Leo Beverly, Donaldson Correctional Facility, stabbed multiple times in legs, chest, back and neck;
• Michael Castillo, Donaldson, beaten and sexually assaulted by another inmate who entered his cell with a knife, padlock and leather restraints;
• Dana Davis, Donaldson, throat slit and stabbed more than 10 times;
• Brandon Russell, Donaldson, stabbed multiple times in head and hand;
• James Taylor, Donaldson, stabbed in the face and shoulder;
• Tommy Joe Jackson, formerly incarcerated at Donaldson and now at St. Clair Correctional Facility, stabbed in the back.