Judge wrong to dismiss lawsuit against Central Texas jailers accused in inmate’s death, appeals court rules

Published: Jul. 18, 2022 at 5:21 PM CDT
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - An appeals court ruled that a Waco federal judge was wrong when he dismissed a lawsuit against two Coryell County jailers who applied force to the inmate’s lower back and neck until she died in October 2017.

In a 14-page opinion issued last week, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a ruling by U.S. District Judge Alan Albright, of Waco, that granted a summary judgment motion dismissing the lawsuit against Coryell County and jailers Steven Russell Lovelady and Wesley Harland Pelfrey.

The ruling, issued by a three-judge panel of the federal appellate court, reinstates the civil rights lawsuit and sends the case back to Albright’s court in Waco.

John Fairchild and Susie Fairchild, the parents of former Coryell County Jail inmate Kelli Leanne Page, filed the federal lawsuit alleging excessive force violations in 2019. Albright held that no constitutional violations occurred and threw the case out. However, the three-judge panel ruled that “viewing the facts in favor of the plaintiffs would allow a jury to find that the jailers used excessive force. And the jailers’ continuing to apply force for more than two minutes after Page was subdued would violate clearly established law. We thus reverse.”

In a summary of the case, the judges wrote that Page, 46, who had “serious mental health challenges as well as physical ailments,” had been in the Coryell County Jail for several months when she woke up and started tapping her hairbrush on the cell door about 7:50 a.m.

“What happened for the next hour is largely undisputed,” the judges wrote.

Lovelady and Pelfrey didn’t want the noise to disrupt others on the hall, so Pelfrey talked to Page for about 10 minutes. Page reportedly told Pelfrey that she was going to stab him in the eye with the hairbrush, according to the opinion.

A jailer sprays Kelli Leanne Page inside her cell
A jailer sprays Kelli Leanne Page inside her cell(KWTX OBTAINED IMAGES)

About 15 minutes later, she started tapping on the door again, and Lovelady asked her to back up to the food slot so he could handcuff her. When she did not comply, Lovelady used pepper spray, which caused Page, who was 5′6″ and weighed 220 pounds, to retreat to the far wall of the cell. Lovelady, described in the opinion as weighing 230, and Pelfrey, who weighed 390, entered the cell at 8:30 a.m., according to the opinion.

Lovelady sprayed Page’s face with pepper spray three more times. She tried to shield her face with a sheet while still holding the hairbrush. Lovelady stepped toward Page preparing to handcuff her, the court’s summary of the incident says.

“What happened next – a span of a few minutes that ended in Page’s death – is hotly disputed,” according to the opinion. “The plaintiffs say Lovelady ‘slammed (Page) to the floor.’ Lovelady testified that he ‘attempted to turn her around and she suddenly let go of the sink,’ which caused her to fall to the floor.”

Once Page was on the floor, a struggle ensued as the jailers tried to handcuff her. Page was lying flat on her stomach with her hands handcuffed behind her back, and Lovelady was sitting on top of her with his knee on her back, according to the opinion. Pelfrey pressed his forearm against her neck.

“Page was held face down in this manner for over two minutes,” the judges’ opinion states. “The jailers rolled Page over to find her unresponsive. They attempted to administer CPR until relieved by the deputy sheriff. Soon after, Page was declared dead.”

A paramedic performed life-saving measures on Kelli Leanne Page, later pronounced dead.
A paramedic performed life-saving measures on Kelli Leanne Page, later pronounced dead.(KWTX Photo)

In issuing the summary judgment, Albright ruled that the jailers’ use of force was reasonable. Force against a pretrial detainee is “excessive” and in violation of the 14th Amendment when the force was objectively unreasonable, according to the appellate court’s opinion.

Albright concluded that all of the factors except the extent of the injury favored the jailers. He determined that the threat of Page’s disturbance left the jailers with no choice but to enter the cell and restrain her. She refused orders and resisted being handcuffed, then she accidentally fell to the floor, Albright concluded.

She continued to resist, kicked and bit the officers and took their handcuffs. He determined the officers could not regain control of the situation until they pinned her to the ground and handcuffed her, the opinion states, citing Albright’s conclusions, including an assertion that the jailers did not put any weight on her.

“On that rendition of facts, we would be inclined to agree with the district court that the force was reasonable,” the panel wrote. “But the district court’s view is not the only view a jury could take of the evidence. Although reasonableness in excessive force cases is viewed from the officer’s perspective, that does not mean we automatically accept his testimony about what happened.”

The appellate court’s opinion said there are three important factual disputes that should be decided by a jury – how Page ended up on the floor, a determination about the level of force used during the struggle and the level of force the jailers used during the final minutes of her life.

Pelfrey testified that the video makes it look like he has his elbow on the back of Page’s neck, though he denied that is what happened. The video depicts Lovelady straddling Page’s back after she had been handcuffed.

“The incident began as a nonviolent noise disturbance and Page made no movement toward the jailers before Lovelady pinned her to the ground,” the 5th Circuit opinion states. “By the time Pelfrey applied pressure to Page’s neck a few minutes later, she was restrained in the prone position and represented almost no risk.”

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