Crime

Federal appellate court says jailers had a duty to protect inmate from being killed

Heath Derrick Parnell was arrested in April 2012 for murdering his cellmate, John Cotta, in the Kings County Jail – a killing that resulted in a wrongful death lawsuit by Cotta’s family in U.S. District Court in Fresno. Parnell, now 50, is serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Heath Derrick Parnell was arrested in April 2012 for murdering his cellmate, John Cotta, in the Kings County Jail – a killing that resulted in a wrongful death lawsuit by Cotta’s family in U.S. District Court in Fresno. Parnell, now 50, is serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Tulare County Jail

A federal appellate court has reinstated a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of an inmate who was killed by his co-defendant and cellmate inside the Kings County Jail five years ago.

Judge Lawrence O’Neill dismissed the federal civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Fresno in February 2015.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, however, ruled this month that O’Neill erred: “In California, prison officials owe detainees a duty to protect them from foreseeable harm.”

And under California law, “a jailer may be held partially liable even if the harm was primarily due to the detainees’ own negligence,” the ruling says.

The lawsuit centers on the April 2012 killing of John Cotta, 30, of Tulare. In June 2013, Heath Derrick Parnell pleaded guilty to murdering Cotta inside a jail cell that the two men shared. Parnell, now 50, was later sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Kings County Jail inmate Heath Derrick Parnell told authorities he killed cellmate John Cotta because Cotta “crossed” him.

Sheriff’s officials said Parnell killed Cotta with a bed sheet on April 22, 2012, about an hour after the lights were turned off in their cell. Parnell later told authorities he killed Cotta because he “crossed” him.

Court records say Parnell killed Cotta the night before they were to be sentenced for the June 2010 attempted murders of four police officers during a high-speed chase that started in the city of Tulare and ended in Kings County.

Authorities say Parnell, a wanted parolee, fired at pursuing officers, abandoned a car and stole another one, and surrendered only after he had been shot. Cotta, who was a passenger in Parnell’s car, told law enforcement that he reloaded a weapon for Parnell during the pursuit and helped him steal the car, “statements that inculpated Parnell,” court records say.

After Cotta was killed, Fresno attorney Kevin G. Little filed a lawsuit on behalf of Cotta’s family, contending Kings County jail staff were negligent for putting them in the same cell. Kings County officials, however, contended in court papers that Cotta and Parnell were friends and Cotta requested to live in the same cell as Parnell.

According to the lawsuit, Parnell has an extensive criminal records and an affiliation with the Hells Angels; Cotta had a criminal record, but not a violent one.

In California, prison officials owe detainees a duty to protect them from foreseeable harm.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

When Cotta was booked into jail, correctional officers initially recommended that he be placed in administrative segregation, or protective custody, the lawsuit says. But after a week in jail, he was put in the general population.

In February 2011, Cotta requested to be housed with Parnell, the lawsuit says. Little said in court papers that Parnell likely pressured Cotta into making the request to make sure Cotta didn’t testify against Parnell in their upcoming trial. Little also said Cotta’s request was granted, despite a sergeant’s “expressed skepticism” about the move.

The pair began living together in May 2011. Over the months, correctional officers responded to about 30 panic calls coming for their cell before, during and after their March 2012 trial, the lawsuit says.

Cotta did not testify against Parnell in their trial. But defense attorney Christopher Caine, who represented Cotta, argued that Parnell was the primary aggressor while Cotta was an unwilling participant. Court records also say Caine told sheriff’s bailiffs that he was concerned about his client being housed with Parnell, saying Parnell posed a threat to Cotta’s safety. “There’s something missing, something loose with Parnell,” Caine told the bailiffs, according to court records.

A jury found the pair guilty of several counts of attempted murder on a peace officer, assault with a semi-automatic weapon, felony evasion and vehicle theft. Cotta faced more than 100 years in prison; Parnell faced 180 years to life in prison.

But the day before they were scheduled to be sentenced, Cotta was found dead in their shared cell.

Ruling in favor of Cotta’s family, the appellate justices said the correctional sergeant who allowed Cotta to be housed with Parnell could be held liable. “Given the low threshold for liability, a reasonable jury could find that the sergeant should have foreseen some risk in housing co-defendants together without first ascertaining whether their defenses were adverse.”

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts

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