U.S. District Judge Richard E. Dorr determined June 9 that Oregon County and its former sheriff, Tim Ward, are not liable for injuries to a jail inmate who had smoke inhalation from a jail fire that occurred Sept. 6, 2007, at the Oregon County Sheriff's Department. The fire also killed another prisoner, Jesse Johnson, 17, of Mammoth Spring, Ark.
According to court documents, the fire was a failed escape attempt. Nicholas Pacheco, 20, formerly of Thayer, an inmate at the jail, and possibly other inmates started the fire with papers, a mattress and other materials.
After the fire, Pacheco was charged with first-degree arson and second-degree murder in the death of Johnson, who died from smoke inhalation. These charges were dropped in May. According to Prosecuting Attorney Fred O'Neill, the evidence against Pacheco was circumstantial because of the possibility of other inmates helping him start the fire. Instead, Pacheco pled guilty to a reduced charge of attempting to escape and was sentenced to four years in state prison.
Cody Davis, 20, of Alton, was in the jail at the time of the fire for burglary and theft charges. He is now serving three years in prison on those charges.
Davis, during the fire, inhaled smoke and passed out. Firefighters and sheriff's deputies extinguished the fire. Davis later filed a lawsuit against the county and the former sheriff, claiming they were negligent and deliberately and recklessly indifferent by creating or failing to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm.
Dorr granted a summary judgment in the civil lawsuit and ruled in favor of the county.
Attorney Patricia Keck, of Springfield, who represented Oregon County in the lawsuit said the summary judgement meant the case had no legal basis.
In the judge's written opinion, Dorr wrote Davis failed to produce evidence supporting his claim that he was subjected to a substantial risk of serious harm. Dorr wrote, "Davis claims that there was a substantial risk of serious harm by fire because inmates smoked in the jail on a regular basis and there was allegedly inadequate fire equipment and safety procedures at the jail. However, it is difficult to say that smoking in a building without sprinklers constitutes a 'substantial risk of serious harm' because absent additional facts which are not alleged in this case (e.g. ashing into flammable containers, sleeping with a lit cigarette, etc.) smoking indoors does not cause an unreasonable risk of fire. Further, the risk of accidental fire due to smoking did not result in a fire in this case. It is uncontested that the fire at issue was intentionally set by an inmate, and there is a dearth of evidence showing a foreseeable risk of intentional fire in the Oregon County jail prior to Sept. 6, 2007."
Davis had claimed a former deputy at the sheriff's department was giving inmates cigarettes despite the jail's written policy against smoking in the jail. However, the deputy in question stopped working at the sheriff's department nine months before the fire.
"There was a strict no smoking policy in the Oregon County Jail," Dorr wrote. "It is uncontested that defendants confiscated contraband that they found in detainees' possession, and defendants discovered and removed the device detainees had been using to smuggle contraband into the jail. Defendants did not disregard the risk that some detainees may have smuggled cigarettes and lighters into the jail, they took precautions to alleviate the risks created by such prohibited conduct."
Dorr also wrote that Davis failed to produce evidence that the defendants knowingly disregarded a risk to his safety. Dorr wrote, "There is no evidence that the defendants had any way of knowing that one of the detainees intended to start a fire in the jail. No detainee had ever started a fire in the Oregon County Jail before, and a recent search of the jail showed that no detainees had contraband that could be used to start a fire."
The judge also wrote that prior to Sept. 6, 2007, the jail had never had a fire and deputies searched the jail for contraband Sept. 1 and seized all contraband from the detainees.