Family Blames Jailers in Inmate’s Death : Alabama: White family says black guards in Birmingham incited attack for racial reasons. Cellmate was convicted of manslaughter, but a guard was acquitted.
Even if Donald Deason drank too much one night, waved a gun at black teen-agers and shouted racial slurs, that doesn’t excuse what happened next, his family says.
Guards at the Birmingham City Jail put the 30-year-old white man in a cell with a man jailed for assault--a black man who, within hours, beat Deason to death so severely that blood flowed into the corridor.
Other prisoners shouted, kicked cell doors and flashed lights in trying to get the attention of guards in a glass cubicle 44 feet away. Although jail policy required cell checks every 30 minutes, no one responded for at least 2 1/2 hours.
Deason’s relatives charged that jailers encouraged, allowed or ignored the beating to retaliate for his racial comments or his arguing with police.
But more than a year later, they haven’t gotten the answers they wanted to hear.
Deason’s slaying on June 13, 1994, led to public hearings and the conviction of his cellmate. But the cellmate gave no indication the slaying was racially motivated. And the only jailer to stand trial so far, a black man, was acquitted of manslaughter to the cheers of fellow guards.
Deason had been chaplain of his high school honor society, an Air Force veteran described as “one of the best” by an officer promoting him, and a Federal Reserve Bank employee who had gone seven years without missing work.
“We’re talking about a good man--who didn’t deserve to die the way he did,” said his aunt, Barbara Underwood.
The events that landed him in jail began as he and his girlfriend were leaving a suburban movie theater. Some teen-agers bumped against his car, and one hit the car with his fist.
Deason jumped out, pulling his gun and shouting, and was spotted by Jerry Monte, a white off-duty policeman working as a security guard. Deason was charged with a gun violation and with being disorderly and intoxicated. Officers said he berated them, insisting that the teen-agers, not he, should have been stopped.
While Deason was being booked, Monte told jail officers: “This guy don’t like blacks.” Many of the jail’s guards are black.
Sometime after midnight, Deason was put in a cell occupied by Bobby Shearer, who had been charged with beating a man. Shearer said Deason insulted him--acting “arrogant and cocky and bold” and exposing himself while urinating, he told detectives.
Shearer wedged Deason beneath the toilet and beat him bloody. Deason lost so much blood it streamed out under the cell door. He had two broken ribs and a broken nose, his eyes and lips were cut, and his head, chest, arms and legs were bruised. One fingertip was nearly severed.
Shearer was convicted of manslaughter in April and sentenced to 25 years in prison. But the Deason case was not over. His family, who says he had many black friends and was not a racist, demanded punishment for the jailers.
During guard Matthew Brock’s trial, inmate Marcellus Williams testified that the guard had once ordered him and others to beat another prisoner.
“We whipped him pretty good,” Williams said. Under cross-examination, however, he acknowledged he did not like Brock and had been treated for mental illness.
Brock said he did not hear the inmates’ calls to rescue Deason, and his lawyer said Brock was being made the scapegoat for the problems at a poorly run jail. Testimony showed cell-check rules were routinely ignored.
Similar evidence had come out when the City Council’s public safety committee convened hearings. The panel concluded that the jail was understaffed and overcrowded and that morale was low and training poor. Proposed solutions included enhanced surveillance cameras and better ways to isolate violent or drunken inmates.
About $220,000 has been appropriated for physical improvements as a result of the inquiry, said E. Byron Davis, who chaired the hearings.
He said lessons were learned, although a central question was never really answered: “What put him in the cell with this particular violent individual, I can’t say.”
In a city torn apart during the 1960s civil rights movement, jail policy prohibited segregating inmates by race, officials said during the hearings.
“If you want to put blame, there’s enough blame or responsibility to go around, including the person who died,” Davis said. But even if someone has too much to drink and uses inflammatory words, he said, “no man should die for that.”
Lawyers for Deason’s family are pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit. But the Rev. Sam Browning, for 20 year the jail’s volunteer chaplain, hopes that attention to the tragedy wanes.
“I think it’s opened eyes,” he said. “Let everything go on now. What I’m saying is, it’s not going to bring him back.”