Miami-Dade County

Lawsuit blames brutal prison death on deliberate indifference

Rick Martin
Rick Martin Florida Department of Corrections

A new federal civil rights lawsuit alleges that Gov. Rick Scott and other state officials caused, and then covered up, the systemic failures that have led to widespread abuse and a record number of inmate deaths in the Florida prison system.

The lawsuit, in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Florida, was filed on behalf of the family of Ricky Martin, a 24-year-old convicted burglar who was fatally beaten, raped and stabbed at the Panhandle’s Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in March 2012. The circumstances of his brutal death were first reported in the Miami Herald in January 2015.

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Martin’s family, based in Naples, contends that the agency’s “deliberate indifference’’ in ignoring the vast problems of the prison agency endangered lives and caused illness, injury and death in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“The governor is the chief executive officer of the state, and ultimately the buck stops at his desk,’’ said civil rights attorney Devon M. Jacob, who represents Russell K. Sharbaugh, Martin’s father-in-law and personal representative of his estate.

The suit alleges that the prison agency, under the direction of Scott, former Corrections’ Secretary Kenneth Tucker, and then-prisons Inspector General Jeffery Beasley, knew, ignored and covered up the fact that Martin’s death — as well as others — could have been prevented.

The Department of Corrections declined to comment, as is its policy when a lawsuit is filed.

Martin, a slight inmate who had less than two years left on his sentence, was attacked by his cellmate, Shawn Rogers, who at 6-4, and 250 pounds had a record of savage attacks against fellow inmates. The suit contends that despite having almost no history of violence, Martin was transferred to Santa Rosa, a maximum security prison, from the Northwest Florida Reception Center on March 12, 2012.

Before leaving Northwest Florida, Martin had filed several complaints with the inspector general’s office warning that his life had been threatened because he had been labeled a “snitch” by corrections officers for reporting that officers at NWFRC were operating an inmate “fight club.”

Rogers, 36, was serving two life sentences. He was placed in a cell with Martin, despite the disparity in their size, disciplinary history and length of their sentences.

Martin, who was married with a child, was at Santa Rosa for only 36 hours before he was found brain dead in a pool of blood. Martin had been hogtied, raped and his head was bludgeoned so badly that he was unrecognizable.

Last year, a Miami Herald investigation — based on the review of hundreds of pages of court and prison records, including crime scene photographs, the autopsy report, video from the prison’s fixed-wing and hand-held cameras and 77 digitally recorded audio interviews — showed that Martin was brutalized despite repeated pleas to corrections officers by inmates who heard and saw Rogers begin tormenting Martin.

At the time of the attack, there were racial tensions at the prison as news of Trayvon Martin’s shooting death at the hands of a white, self-appointed neighborhood watchdog reached the prison population. Rogers, who is black, announced that he wanted to kill a white inmate to avenge racial injustices.

Inmates who had a direct view into the cell said they told officers John Beaudry and Jacob Denmon that Martin was in trouble and they needed to help him.

In all, 28 inmates said the officers shrugged off the warnings, saying some version of “let the next shift handle it,” or “fight or f-ck,’’ and left the dorm, the lawsuit says. According to the suit, “fight or f--ck’’ was a vulgar phrase that referred to the prison’s practice of telling inmates who felt threatened to handle it themselves.

Inmates testified that they were so disturbed by the high-pitched screams, thuds and slapping sounds coming from Martin’s cell that they shouted for Rogers to stop, to no avail. Rogers announced that he was sexually assaulting Martin and when Martin screamed in pain, Rogers snapped: “Shut up, cracker, shut up,’’ the lawsuit said. Witnesses also said they saw Rogers jump on Martin’s head from a top bunk at least 10 times, cut him with a razor and beat him with a makeshift slapjack fashioned from a sock stuffed with batteries, all while corrections officers allegedly did nothing.

“Everything could have been avoided if they would have listened,” inmate Kenrontay Bell told senior inspector Edward White, who was the lead investigator for the Department of Corrections’ inspector general’s office, headed by Beasley.

White told Bell that the officers’ actions “would be addressed,” but, in fact, no investigation of the guards’ actions ever occurred.

FDC conducted just one sworn interview with one corrections officer — Beaudry — and his questioning lasted nine minutes. Beaudry claimed he looked inside the cell, saw Martin on his bunk and everything was fine.

Rogers, who said his propensity for violence was widely known, has been charged with first-degree murder and prosecutors said they intend to seek the death penalty.His January 2015 trial was abruptly postponed after the Herald published its article. There is no new trial date.

The Department of Corrections never disciplined any officers in connection with the case.

Subsequently, an officer, captain and lieutenant on duty that night were promoted, as well as the warden, Randy Tifft, who has since retired.

Michael Crews, who replaced Tucker in December 2012 as Scott’s third corrections secretary, had warned that conditions were deteriorating at Florida’s prisons, that the prisons were dangerously understaffed and that use of force by officers was soaring. But the governor and Legislature continued to slash the FDC’s budget and its staff — even after Crews pointed out that the agency’s budget was $500 million less than it was in 2007 and had 9,000 more inmates in the system.

Jacob said plundering the agency’s budget at a time when prison violence was clearly escalating led to massive civil rights abuses.

The Department of Corrections declined to comment, as is its policy when a lawsuit is filed.

The lawsuit contends that “the [FDC] under the ultimate supervision of [Gov.] Scott, continues to attempt to cover up information regarding inmate deaths, and continues to delay or prevent investigations into inmate deaths.’’

Since Julie Jones succeeded Crews in January 2014, the new secretary has adjusted some of the ways that inmates are classified to ensure that large, violent inmates aren’t paired with smaller, milder ones.

David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor, said the complaint “is a further indictment of the deplorable conditions that exist in many of Florida’s state correctional institutions.’’