Credit: The Associated Press

Years after a federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of a mentally ill Mississippi man jailed in Clay County for 11 years, the case was settled this week. 

Steven Jessie Harris, now 42, was charged with murder, kidnapping and other offenses in 2005. He is accused of fatally shooting his 72-year-old father, Malichi Randle, in West Point before allegedly committing other crimes and running from police. 

In 2007, doctors at the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield diagnosed Harris with schizophrenia, and a year later he was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial, but Harris was not released from the Clay County Detention Center until 2017, according to his attorney. All charges against him have been dismissed. 

After his release, Harris went to East Mississippi State Hospital but is now home with family.

Harris’ guardian and family member, Rachel Harris, filed a federal lawsuit on his behalf in the Northern District of Mississippi in 2018 against Clay County, former sheriff Laddie Huffman and current Sheriff Eddie Scott and other officials. The demand was $11 million for the years Steven spent in jail in violation of his 14th Amendment right. 

“We believe Clay County won’t be able to do this again,” said Carlos Moore, one of Harris’ attorneys. 

Attorneys representing the county and the current and former sheriff did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. 

Moore said Harris and his family members are pleased that the case is over. 

The case had been set for trial today at the federal courthouse in Oxford. On Monday,  U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mills dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice because of the settlement. 

“The court retains complete jurisdiction to vacate this order and to reopen the action upon cause shown that settlement has not been completed and further litigation is necessary,” he wrote. 

Moore said the settlement was financial, but the amount is confidential.

In his criminal case, Steven Harris’ trial had been continued at least twice. After Whitfield doctors reiterated that he was not competent to stand trial, his case was transferred from circuit to county court, according to court documents. Then-Clay County District Attorney Forrest Allgood asked for Harris’ competency to be reevaluated, but that didn’t happen and neither did a trial. 

Over the years, several defendants were dismissed from the lawsuit. Trial was first set for 2021 but was pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Two stays were ordered in the case and the lawsuit went to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in June 2021 affirmed the district court’s judgment in part and dismissed the county’s appeal, saying “it it has long been the law that sheriffs can be held responsible for unlawful detentions, especially when a court order tells them that the
detainee should be released.”

Moore said attorneys for Clay County and the sheriffs had also petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court over the 5th Circuit’s ruling. 

Attorney James Bryant, who also represents Harris, said the 5th Circuit Court ruling set a precedent that it is unconstitutional to detain a mentally ill person after they have been ruled mentally incompetent and civilly committed to receive treatment at a state mental health hospital. 

Under qualified immunity, which states that a government employee can’t be sued if they were acting within the bounds of their job, clearly established law would be the way to hold them accountable for actions against citizens. Bryant said Harris’ case can be used to challenge law enforcement actions. 

“His name will always be the first case,” Bryant said. 

Before Harris’ case, Moore said he had never heard about someone being held in jail without a trial after being declared mentally incompetent. Now, there are other cases, such as that of Raffell Franklin, who had been at the Jasper County jail for five years, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting reported. 

Following that story, Disability Rights Mississippi was able to get Franklin transferred from jail to the Mississippi State Hospital and their counsel within 48 hours of asking for information on his case, MCIR reported. 

Moore said Franklin’s family has retained him as their attorney, and he plans to file a lawsuit addressing the man’s detention. 

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Mina, a California native, covers the criminal justice system. Before joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Clarion Ledger and newspapers in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and USA Today.