Hoppy Kercheval, Opinion

Federal judge blasts W.Va. corrections officials for destroying, losing evidence

Judicial orders are often a dry read — technical and sprinkled with references to relevant court cases. Naturally, they are meaningful to the lawyers involved, but to a layperson, me included, court rulings are not exactly the stuff of a John Grisham novel.

That is why the order this week by U.S. Magistrate Omar Aboulhosn stands apart. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first the background.

At issue is a lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates at the Southern Regional Jail in Beckley claiming inhuman conditions. They contend inmates must sleep on the floor because of overcrowding, that they are subject to physical attacks from other inmates, that they are deprived of regularly functioning sinks, toilets and showers, that the jail has black mold and other unsanitary conditions and that the jail is chronically understaffed.

As a result of the suit, the defendants — officials with the jail and the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (WVDCR) — are deposed, and attorneys for the inmates request any documents they believe are relevant to their case.

The lawyers for the inmates (the plaintiffs) said the WVDCR (the defendants) were not supplying all the information requested (the discovery process), so they went to court.

This is where the story takes a significant turn.

Magistrate Aboulhosn held a hearing, and then issued an order, and not just any order; he filled his 39-page order with scathing criticisms of how WVDCR has responded to the lawsuit. Here are a few examples:

  • He found that corrections officials destroyed or failed to save evidence even after the court told the defendants to hang on to relevant emails, security video and paper copies of inmate complaints. “The ONLY logical explanation for the loss of this evidence, is that it was intentionally destroyed,” Aboulhosn wrote.
  • The judge said the defendants displayed “unmitigated gall” in how they ignored requests for evidence. “The Court will not turn a blind eye to the Defendants’ blatant arrogance and flippant response to their legal obligations.”
  • Aboulhosn said WVDCR has been derelict in its duty and has demonstrated “utter disregard for the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, let alone their own policies governing the preservation of discovery. To say the Court found the testimony elicited from the Defendants shocking is a gross understatement.”  
  • The judge said since evidence was “intentionally destroyed” and because of the defendants “pervasive and ongoing failures to abide by the rules of discovery,” he recommended an order for “default judgement.”

This means that because the defendants lost or destroyed evidence and abused the discovery process, a final judgment can be entered that the inmates win their case. Any trial would only be about the amount of damages, if any, the state is liable to pay. This is the most serious sanction available to the court and it is only applied in the most egregious cases of misconduct.

This is an epic fail by the Department of Corrections, and ultimately by the Justice administration, in how they have handled this. The documentation that is now destroyed could have been an important tool not only in court, but also for members of the public, to assess whether state government is adequately and humanely overseeing the jails system.

Hoppy Kercheval is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at hoppy.kercheval@wvradio.com.