A civil lawsuit alleging excessive force against a former state trooper was settled Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Aberdeen, the attorney for the plaintiffs says.
There was no immediate comment from state officials. The state payout is contingent upon approval by the Mississippi Legislature, which must appropriate the settlement money.
Christopher Hughes of Tupelo, who once was named state Trooper of the Year, was accused of beating and injuring five citizens in separate incidents while working as an officer for the Mississippi Department of Public Safety.
Tupelo attorney Jim Waide said in a news release that the state of Mississippi agreed to pay $235,000 in damages to his clients after settlement negotiations under the supervision of Magistrate Judge David A. Sanders.
The case had been scheduled for trial on April 25 in Oxford.
Waide said the settlement “resolved the civil liability” of both Hughes and his boss, former Mississippi Highway Patrol Director Michael Berthay, whom the lawsuit claimed knew about Hughes’ overly aggressive behavior against citizens.
The assaults alleged in the lawsuit came to light because of an investigation initiated by Mississippi Highway Patrol Lt. James Brown, who became suspicious when he saw one of the plaintiffs, John A. Hawn, with severe facial injuries in the Lee County Jail.
Hughes, 45, was indicted in 2012 and pleaded guilty in 2013 for depriving Carol Wampler-George of her civil rights after he stomped her against a concrete floor in the Lee County Jail in Tupelo. He was sentenced to 33 months in prison and recently was released.
His attorney, Jason Herring of Tupelo, confirmed the settlement agreement and said, on behalf of Hughes and his family, “We are glad finally to get everything resolved … to enable them to move forward.”
Hughes has been working in the culinary field since his release earlier this year.
Complainants in the excessive force lawsuit with Hawn were Bryan Lindsey of Pontotoc County, Ronnie Horton of Itawamba County and Heather Seawright and Matilda Moore, both of Lee County.
Although the details were different, their claims were similar:
• Horton, then 55 and chairman of his church’s Board of Deacons, lost consciousness while driving home and Hughes wrongfully assumed he was intoxicated. Hughes beat his face and bloodied his mouth. Horton also suffered back and neck injuries.
• Seawright, arrested on DUI and other charges, was struck in the face by Hughes with a flashlight. Her head also was smashed against a glass wall at the Lee County Jail.
• Moore, then a 63-year-old Tupelo school teacher, was a passenger in a vehicle stopped by Hughes, and she admitted she’d had a glass of wine after Tupelo High School graduation. Hughes took her to the jail, threw her up against a wall, bruised her body and threatened to break her arm.
As for Hawn, he had been drinking beer after work on a construction project and drove around an Mississippi Highway Patrol roadblock near Mooreville. He claimed an enraged Hughes beat him and ordered his partner to destroy the videotape. Hawn suffered a broken jaw and other injuries.
Hughes never was charged criminally for any of these actions, and the Wampler-George attack went to trial on civil rights issues, not criminal ones.
Two highway patrol officers testified in depositions that they had shown Berthay a videotape of Hughes’ beating of Wampler-George. She was not part of the civil lawsuit.
The complaint alleged that Berthay took no disciplinary action against Hughes for the Wampler-George beating, and that Hughes continued his abuse of citizens. This alleged abuse was the central focus of the suit that was settled on Tuesday.
Hal Neilson of Oxford, one of Berthay’s attorneys, said his client is “elated” with the outcome of the lawsuit, saying it exonerates the former MHP chief and lays no fault at his feet.
“Frankly, Mr. Berthay had retired at the time of all these occurrences and we’re glad to get this cleared up,” Neilson said.