State News

Corrections captain fired over inmate death loses appeal

Posted December 5, 2014

Caldwell County Courthouse

— A North Carolina judge Friday upheld the decision of the state's prison system to fire a corrections captain after a mentally ill inmate died of thirst earlier this year.

Following a three-day hearing this week, Administrative Law Judge Selina Brooks found the "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 in April amid an investigation into the death of inmate Michael Anthony Kerr.

Correction officials found Kerr dead in the back of a van March 12 after the inmate was transferred from Alexander to Central Prison in Raleigh. The state medical examiner later found Kerr died of dehydration.

Caldwell County Courthouse Prison captain fired over inmate death wants job back

A federal grand jury and the State Bureau of Investigation, which is overseen by the same administrative department as the prison system, are investigating the matter for possible criminal conduct.

The former captain is one of at least nine Alexander employees fired in the wake of Kerr's death. At least two others resigned, and DPS officials say close to 30 people have been disciplined or demoted in some form. Like Blackburn, many are fighting their dismissals through the quasi-judicial personnel process.

Blackburn has the option to take the case to Superior Court. But his attorney, Joy Rhyne Webb, said she had not yet spoken to him about whether he will appeal.

Blackburn's bosses say he violated policy and demonstrated poor judgment when he left Kerr, who suffered from schizoaffective disorder, confined in handcuffs for five days in solitary confinement, where the inmate had been segregated for more than a month.

But when he took the stand at the Caldwell County Courthouse in Lenoir this week, Blackburn said he followed policies to keep staff safe from the inmate as they exited his cell, and that Kerr refused dozens of offers by corrections officers to have his handcuffs removed.

Brooks will issue a formal written decision in the case before Feb. 3.


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