By Dave Russell
A lawsuit filed by the family of Melissa Middleton Rice, of Cashiers against the Jackson County Detention Center was settled out of court earlier this month, court documents show. Rice in 2019 hanged herself while in custody at the Detention Center’s bond/booking room, using a telephone cord out of range of security cameras.
The settlement amount was about $725,000. Payments are to go to Rice’s sons, Jerred Madison Rice and Matthew Dillard.
Rice, 49 at the time, allegedly on Jan. 16, 2019, went to the home of Joel Rice and Lindsey Heller and tried to attack Heller.
Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Ridge Parris responded to the domestic call at about 9:15 a.m.
Parris noted that Rice smelled of alcohol.
After a scuffle with Rice, Parris allegedly locked her in the backseat of his patrol cruiser with a police dog and went into the house to take statements and wash blood off his hands.
The suit claims Rice was alone in the car with the dog for over 10 minutes.
When Parris returned, he found the interior of the patrol car on fire.
“While she was handcuffed and locked in the back of the patrol car, Decedent used a cigarette lighter and a one dollar bill, which Parris had failed to secure, to set her clothes and the seat of the patrol car on fire in an apparent attempt to commit suicide,” the suit reads.
Parris pulled Rice from the car and put out the fire. Rice was transported to Harris Regional Hospital where she was evaluated and released to the custody of the Sheriff’s Office.
Rice was booked on numerous criminal charges, including simple assault; possession of stolen motor vehicle; larceny of motor vehicle; resisting public officer; assault on a government official; burning personal property; domestic criminal trespass; breaking and/or entering.
According to court documents, at about 6:15 p.m., Parris told Rice she would not be provided bail and what charges would be filed.
“At approximately 6:17 p.m., after being advised that she would not be provided bail and would be retained in the jail, Decedent went to the back of the Booking Room, outside the view of the single surveillance camera, and wrapped the phone cord around her neck and sat down to hang herself,” the lawsuit filed by Rice’s son, Matthew Dillard, stated.
The suit states Rice remained alive until 6:27 p.m. and was found by jail employee Emily Couvillon at 7:06 p.m.
Rice was transported to Mission Hospital, where she was pronounced dead on Jan. 18, 2019.
District Attorney Ashley Welch in a July 15, 2019, release cleared the Detention Center of wrongdoing in the suicide.
“There is no evidence of culpable negligence or omissions by law enforcement and there is insufficient evidence to show any officer failed to perform a duty of his or her office,” Welch said at the time.
Detention Center staff checked on Rice in accordance with state law. Officers were able to view her on a camera installed in the bond room and did not see any behavior indicating Rice was a danger to herself, Welch concluded.
Rice had been incarcerated in the same detention facility the week before with no issues.
“The SBI investigation has been thorough, and further investigation is unlikely to produce additional material information,” Welch said.
The suit filed in February 2020 by Rice’s family claimed that the Sheriff’s Office was responsible for wrongful death, failure to adequately train and supervise employees, 14th amendment violations concerning life, liberty and due process and violation of NCGS 162-55 barring jailers from harming inmates and holding them responsible for paying triple in damages if they do.
The suit named Sheriff Chip Hall in his official capacity as sheriff, Western Surety Company on behalf of the sheriff and 10 employees – Patrick McCoy, Ridge Parris, Stephen Watson, Aniyah McMullen, Emily Couvillon, Shondra Collini, Mark Junaluska, Justin Nicholson, Kayla Elliott and Kaitlyn Bradley – all acting in their official and individual capacities, as defendants.
The suit alleged Hall and his officers failed to comply with North Carolina statute 153A-224 requiring detention center employees to continuously monitor inmates, be aware of medical needs and protect them from harm and death.
The suit alleged the Sheriff’s Office, through a series of missteps, failed to realize or acknowledge that Rice was a danger to herself.
In an April 2020 answer, the Sheriff’s Office denied the allegations, claiming Dillard’s suit lacked evidence to back up claims of negligence.
“Plaintiff’s complaint, in whole or in part, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,” the answer states.
It also claimed employees are immune from judgment based on the fact that they were acting as officers of the law.