MACON, Ga. (CN) - The family of an inmate who was murdered by a mentally unstable cellmate needs the killer's mental-health records to establish if prison officials are liable, a federal judge ruled.
Terrance Desmond Bowen was serving time at Baldwin State Prison in Milledgeville, Ga., when his cellmate, Carl Merkerson, beat him to death in March 2010.
Bowen's family sued Carl Humphrey, the prison's warden, other prison officials, and a psychiatrist who treated inmates at Baldwin State, claiming they had violated Bowen's Eighth Amendment rights by putting him in a cell with Merkerson.
Prison officials violate the Eighth Amendment when they know a prisoner poses a substantial risk of harm to others but fail to investigate, monitor and prevent him from harming other prisoners.
Bowen's survivors claimed that Humphrey, prison guards, and the psychiatrist knew Merkerson was dangerous before he killed Bowen. A few days before the assault, Merkerson's mother had told a mental health counselor at the prison that her son's mental condition was getting worse, and that he may become violent and dangerous, the family said in the complaint.
Merkerson suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, had delusional episodes, and was much larger than Bowen, according to the complaint.
U.S. District Judge Marc Treadwell ruled on June 6 that the family needs additional information to prove liability because Bowen is dead and cannot testify.
"The state defendants' subjective knowledge is in fact a close call," Treadwell wrote. "Accepting the plaintiff's allegations as true, Merkerson's prior murder conviction, his mental health status and history of schizophrenia, his prior assault on a cellmate, his 'decompensating' mental condition, and the state defendants' disregard of their policy against double-celling mental health inmates with prior assaults all point toward their liability."
A spokeswoman for the state defendants declined to comment on the decision.
The judge noted that prison policy violations are not enough to establish the officials' liability. The alleged breach, however, is relevant to their knowledge of the risk Merkerson posed, according to the order.
To prove liability, Bowen's family must show that the defendants had knowledge of specific events or information that was brought to their attention before the assault.
Since Bowen is deceased and unable to shed light on the circumstances leading to his death, the family is entitled to limited discovery to determine if the prison officials actually knew that Merkerson posed a serious risk of harm to Bowen, the ruling states.
While public officials are generally shielded from extensive discovery, especially when they invoke qualified immunity, the unique circumstances of the case warrant limited discovery, Treadwell ruled.
He ordered the state defendants to disclose Merkerson's mental health records for 2010 to Bowen's family. The records, however, may only be used for depositions and should not be shared with anyone else, the order states.
The family may depose the state defendants and the counselor who completed and signed a mental health evaluation form for Merkerson in March 2010, strictly about events that occurred at Baldwin State Prison, according to the ruling.
Treadwell gave the parties 60 days to complete the limited discovery.