State News

Appeals court rules against officer fired over inmate death

Posted March 15, 2016

— Citing "overwhelming and disturbing evidence," the N.C. Court of Appeals Tuesday upheld the firing of a North Carolina prison captain following the death of a mentally ill inmate in 2014.

It took about a day back in December 2014 for an administrative law judge to find a "preponderance of evidence" showed the N.C. Department of Public Safety was right to fire Shawn Blackburn, formerly a captain at Alexander Correctional Institution, for "grossly inefficient" job performance amid an investigation into the death of 53-year-old inmate Michael Kerr. A three-judge panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed that decision Tuesday.

 IN-DEPTH: The final days of Michael Kerr

Kerr died March 12, 2014, in the back of a prison transport van on his way to Central Prison from Alexander, where Blackburn was often the officer in charge while on duty. Kerr, an Army veteran whose schizoaffective disorder went untreated for at least six months, had been confined to restrictive housing for more than 30 days for mental health evaluation and misbehavior. He spent the five days prior to his transfer handcuffed and motionless in his cell, and the cuffs were so caked with filth by the time officers came to move him, they had to use bolt cutters to get them off.

In July, the state awarded the inmate's family $2.5 million after an attorney general's office memo said the prison system's liability for his death was "inescapable."

After responding to staff who found Kerr unresponsive on March 8, 2014, corrections officers restrained the inmate per policy and entered his cell to check on him. After nurses said he was fine, Blackburn left the cell with his staff and ordered Kerr to come to the door to get his cuffs removed, which was also standard procedure at Alexander.

When Kerr failed to respond, Blackburn ordered his staff not to remove the cuffs unless the inmate followed the order and came to the door. He also ordered that milk would no longer be delivered to his cell, since Kerr had been clogging the toilet with discarded cartons.

Those orders were never disobeyed or changed, even by other captains who took over when Blackburn left the facility.

At his hearing, Blackburn testified that he interpreted Kerr's failure to come to the door as refusing an order. But medical experts and the court itself concluded Kerr's condition had deteriorated so much that he was incapable of coming to the door.

Although Blackburn was one of about two dozen prison staffers to be disciplined or resign in the wake of Kerr's death, prison officials and the attorney general's office have argued that his poor decisions were justification enough for his dismissal.

"I considered him somewhat the catalyst for what was spurred in the Michael Kerr case," Director of Adult and Juvenile Facilities George Solomon said during the three-day personnel hearing in Lenoir, N.C., in December 2014.

Several other prison staffers and managers have appealed their dismissals by the Department of Public Safety. Blackburn is the only one to lose his case.

His attorney, Joy Rhyne Webb, has not returned a request for comment, nor have officials with the attorney general's office or DPS.

In her opinion, Judge Valerie Zachary wrote Blackburn's arguments for overturning his firing ignored his responsibility as a senior correctional officer and "contributed directly" to Kerr's death.

"In the face of this overwhelming and disturbing evidence, petitioner nonetheless argues that respondent 'failed to present sufficient evidence to establish such potential of serious bodily injury or death,'" Zachary wrote. "We hold that the evidence and the ALJ’s findings established not only a potential for serious injury or death, but death itself."

Read the ruling


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