Citing secret beatings, an untreated suicide attempt, a year of solitary confinement and limited access to legal materials, an attorney for one of three men facing a possible death penalty trial in the 2016 slaying of a state's witness said his client is being treated like a "death row prisoner" and is requesting a transfer out of the Hamilton County Jail.
Attorney Steven Moore's motion, filed Tuesday for Courtney High, follows a request earlier this month from District Attorney General Neal Pinkston asking the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to look into alleged assault, official misconduct and official oppression from "various Hamilton County jailers" tasked with guarding High.
It also coincides with a sheriff's office investigation into the county jail's mental health specialist, whose position has been vacant since she was relieved of duty roughly three months ago in connection with an inappropriate relationship she allegedly had with High.
Prosecutors say High, 28, is one of three men in the Athens Park Bloods street gang who kidnapped Bianca Horton in May 2016, shooting her multiple times, and dumping her body on the side of the road. Their goal, prosecutors say, was to prevent her from testifying against Cortez Sims, another alleged Athens Park Bloods member who faced attempted first-degree murder and first-degree murder charges in connection with a 2015 quadruple shooting that injured Horton, her baby and her boyfriend, and killed her friend, 20-year-old Talitha Bowman. High also faces first-degree murder charges in the separate 2016 deaths of Jerica Jackson and Marquise Jackson, who are not related.
While these may be serious allegations, Moore wrote in his motion, High has pleaded not guilty to the crimes and is supposed to receive specific medical and legal support from jail administrators under Tennessee law. Unconvicted people in custody also have constitutional rights to basic human needs from the government, including food, shelter, medical care and reasonable safety, Moore wrote. Except that's not been happening, said Moore, who has been raising these concerns in Hamilton County Criminal Court since August 2018, when he joined the case with High's other attorney, Fisher Wise.
"He is being denied basic human rights; is confined to a solitary confinement cell 23 hours a day; is not allowed to shower every day; does not receive exercise time; is not allowed the availability to communicate with other inmates; and has on many occasions not been provided letters sent from counsel," while letters mailed from Defendant High to counsel were never sent, Moore wrote in the motion. "Counsel, as an officer of the court, would further state that he has been denied access to Defendant High on many occasions."
Though the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office on Tuesday declined to comment on Moore's motion or provide specifics about the mental health specialist's personnel record, Chief of Corrections Joe Fowler acknowledged there is an investigation into her and said her former employer, the Mental Health Cooperative, has been providing services and personnel in her absence. Fowler added the sheriff's office is seeking an additional mental health specialist in this year's budget and will be partnering with a different company, Volunteer Behavioral Health.
In a recent jailhouse interview with the Times Free Press, High said he had a relationship with the specialist and attributed part of her termination to frustrations she had with the way jail personnel handled suicide watch at the facility. In previous testimony to the court, High has said a jail official downplayed his suicidal thoughts and gave him blankets and sheets that he could've used to hang himself.
High has been in custody, largely at Hamilton County Jail, since the fall of 2016. In a phone interview Tuesday, Moore said High has reported not receiving his seizure and psychiatric medications on multiple occasions and attempted suicide at least twice, one in 2017 and again in 2018. High, who grew up without his biological father, has taken various medications since his mother and sibling died in a house fire when he was a teenager, Moore said.
Records showed High receiving care at Erlanger after a suicide attempt in 2017, Moore said. But after jail officials stopped giving him a prescribed antidepressant in late May 2018, citing concerns he was depressive and hoarding his medicine, High attempted suicide again by swallowing roughly 30 pills that he got from other inmates, according to a transcript in Criminal Court. This time, High testified in Aug. 31, 2018, he was taken to solitary confinement and wasn't treated further. About a month later, on Oct. 9, 2018, jail officials said they found two tied-up gloves that contained a white powdery substance inside High's solitary cell — a full, steel metal door with a peephole that can only be opened by key — and charged him with possession of contraband in a penal institution.
"But how does an inmate locked down 23 hours a day, and never out of his solitary confinement cell without guards, obtain drugs or any contraband?" Moore asked. "Common sense would dictate that if such allegations can be proven, there must be one or more co-conspirators who are employed at the Hamilton County Jail for Defendant High to come into possession of any form of contraband."
Moore said his client has also reported violence to him: Within the last 10 days, High said, four or more guards physically removed him from his cell around 2 a.m., took him to an area on the sixth floor that is a "blind spot" from security cameras, and punched, kicked and stunned him with a stun gun. The next morning, Moore said High told him, a first-shift supervisor saw the blood on High's clothing, took pictures and sent him to medical providers. Before that, Moore wrote, sometime this spring, other inmates charged with High in the state's case against the Athens Park Bloods rode an elevator unsupervised to High's floor for a "religious service." But each man was armed with a "shank," Moore wrote, and they arrived at the exact moment High was taken out of his cell. A fight ensued, but no guards were hurt, Moore wrote.
District Attorney General Pinkston declined to comment Tuesday on Moore's motion through his spokesman, Bruce Garner, who cited the ongoing investigation with the TBI. But at a previous hearing, Pinkston suggested High receive a psychiatric evaluation, court transcripts show. A doctor has since conducted that evaluation and recommended a course of treatment, and Moore said he delivered it in person to the jail. But High is still not on the medical regiment that doctor suggested, Moore said Tuesday.
No hearing has been scheduled yet before Criminal Court Judge Tom Greenholtz. But Moore said he and High are requesting a transfer to a different facility, perhaps at Silverdale Detention Center on Standifer Gap Road in Hamilton County, or in another close-by city or county.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.