WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court has ruled that Harford County officials did not violate a jail warden’s rights when they asked him to retire after an inmate was found dead, with a pillowcase over his head, in the detention center.
Former warden Earl Dale Zepp, 58, of Bel Air, sued the Harford county executive and the county attorney in June 1994, claiming they forced him to retire and then defamed him when they announced his resignation followed jail “management problems.”
Late last month, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond affirmed a Baltimore court ruling that the defendants did not deprive Zepp of his right to due process in April 1993 when they told him he could resign or face the possibilities of being fired and sued by the inmate’s family.
The three appeals judges declined to rule on questions of state law raised by the lawsuit.
Jefferson Lee Blomquist, an attorney who represented Harford County in the appeal, welcomed the decision.
“From the aspect of civil liability, it didn’t matter whether the inmate’s death was a murder or a suicide, because he was under protective custody and it shouldn’t have happened,” he said.
But Zepp’s attorney, Michael Dwayne Smigiel, said he plans to petition the federal appeals court for a rehearing. He said he is also considering petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
And, last week, Smigiel filed a new suit in Harford County Circuit Court against the county, County Executive Eileen Rehrmann and the county attorney, alleging Zepp was discharged in violation of the Sheriff Department’s policies.
The case stems from the discovery March 1, 1992, of William M. Ford Jr., 28, of Wilmington, Del. He was lying face down on his cot at the County Detention Center, with a pillowcase tied tightly around his neck, court records state.
Ford’s family accused Harford County deputies of sodomizing and murdering him. He was serving a 30-day sentence for drunk driving, court records state.
Recognizing that the county could be held liable in a civil suit, county attorney Ernest Crofoot began negotiating with the inmate’s family.
The family said it held Zepp responsible for covering up the circumstances of Ford’s death and that it would not give up the right to sue Zepp if he remained in charge of the detention center, court records state.
County officials in April 1993 began seeking Zepp’s retirement, court records state. Zepp agreed to do so and formally retired June 30, 1993.
In exchange for Zepp’s retirement and a $400,000 settlement, Ford’s family agreed to relinquish all claims against Howard County and its employees except for three individuals whose identities have not been disclosed, according to the appeals court.
The following year – in February 1994 – a grand jury concluded that the inmate had killed himself, either intentionally or in a botched, faked suicide attempt.
The grand jury decided the semen found in his mouth and anus was his own.
“Although we can understand the family’s resistance to this conclusion, there is simply no evidence to support a rape/murder scenario, and all evidence points to a suicide/accident,” the grand jury’s report said.
The grand jury also found that detention center personnel were “hasty and premature” in their washing of the inmate’s cell and clothing after his death, but that the actions were done in “good faith” and not as part of any criminal conspiracy.
Justice Paul Z. Niemeyer wrote the opinion in the unanimous appeals court decision, joined by justices J. Dickson Phillips and Clyde H. Hamilton.
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