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CCJI to Assist With Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit filed by the Family of Native American Rexdale Henry who Died in Custody in Neshoba County Jail

Posted on Tuesday 7/10/2018

On Friday, July 6, 2018, the family of Rexdale Henry filed a lawsuit alleging constitutional claims and violations of federal civil rights that resulted in Mr. Henry’s death while in custody at the Neshoba County Detention Center in July 2015. 

53-year-old Mr. Henry was a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and was arrested on July 9, 2015, on warrants for minor traffic fines. Five days later, on July 14, 2015, he was found dead in his cell.  Mr. Henry developed serious alcohol withdrawal disease after he was held in jail without being treated for obvious symptoms. Left untreated, he suffered and was in severe pain and disoriented from these effects.  

“We never thought that Rexdale received just treatment,” says Lonie Henry, Rexdale Henry’s widow. “Not in jail and not in the criminal court system. They put Rexdale at risk and did not help him when his life was in danger. We are thankful that attorneys, advocates, and civil rights leaders are fighting for justice on our behalf.”

“Neshoba County jailers’ treatment of Henry defied basic humanity,” says Janis McDonald, Professor Emeritus of Syracuse University College of Law. “Despite his pleas for medical attention, jail officials ignored his requests and instead treated him with callous disregard, including physical and mental abuse, and also allowed other inmates to abuse him while he was under the complete care and custody of the jail.” 

Paula Johnson of the Cold Case Justice Initiative adds, “The jailers’ response to Mr. Henry’s medical condition to was simply ‘throw him into the detox tank,’ rather than obtain necessary medical personnel to provide treatment for him. Even more egregious, they were aware that it directly violated a consent decree previously ordered by Judge Thomas Lee, of the Southern District of Mississippi, for identical practices in 1994-1997.”

Last year the state charged Mr. Henry’s cellmate, Justyn Schlegel, with his death.  Schlegel subsequently was convicted of criminal homicide, which he has appealed. The family’s lawsuit will prove that State authorities remain ultimately responsible for Henry’s death.

Other defendants in the suit include members of the Board of Supervisors, Sheriff Tommy Waddell, Investigator Ralph Sciple, Jimmy Reed, Administrator of the Neshoba County Detention Center, Stephen Collins, Neshoba County Coroner, and several others. The authorities and other defendants’ abusive actions, lack of proper medical care, and failure to protect Henry constitute the basis of the family’s claims of violations. Violations include 42 U.S.C. §§1983, 1985, 1986, and 1988, and the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

Handling this case for the family is Natchez, Mississippi Attorney Paul Sullivan, a veteran personal injury attorney, who filed the lawsuit on Friday, July 6, 2018, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. Janis L. McDonald, Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University College of Law will join him as counsel.  McDonald and Professor Paula C. Johnson co-founded the Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI), at Syracuse University College of Law.

Sullivan is a graduate of the University of Mississippi School of Law. He was a state prosecutor in Florida for two years, and 28 years representing people charged with various crimes.  An experienced criminal trial attorney, Sullivan has tried approximately two hundred jury trials, both as prosecutor and defense attorney, including first-degree murder, drug trafficking, sex crimes, and robbery. He has extensive experience representing people charged with DUI, including over 140 DUI jury trials and has a long history of representing people charged with crimes throughout Mississippi and Florida. 

“There is no excuse for the persistent inhumane and racially biased treatment against detainees of color in Neshoba County Jail,” says Sullivan.  “Officials must be held accountable for the heinous results of their cruel disregard for Rexdale Henry’s life and the loss that his family and community have suffered.” 

In July 2015, just after Rexdale Henry was discovered dead in his cell at the Neshoba County Justice Center, civil rights icon Diane Nash contacted the co-directors and requested help in obtaining answers and accountability for those responsible for his death.  McDonald, Johnson, and CCJI law students volunteered to assist the family to obtain the answers and justice they sought for Mr. Henry’s death.  This included helping to secure an independent autopsy on the cause of death and helping them find legal representation in Mississippi.  Nash and other civil rights activists have continued to seek justice for Rexdale Henry.   

Mr. Henry’s survivors include his wife Lonie Henry, mother Winnie Willis, daughter Patricia Mitch, sons Kinsey Henry, Sr. and Anselm Henry, brother Ronnie Henry, and 12 grandchildren. His mother, Winnie Willis, recently passed away. Rexdale Henry was a medicine man and a civil rights activist on Native American rights and other social justice issues. He also coached stickball and made traditional equipment for the sport.

“The Cold Case Justice Initiative will continue to assist the Henry family in their quest for justice. This is an important part of our racial justice mission,” says Johnson. 

“This lawsuit is an important step toward holding the authorities responsible for their inhumanity against Rexdale Henry,” McDonald emphasizes. “And by extension, bring attention to the plight of other detainees, the neglect of those with dangerous alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and those who are mostly poor people of color caught up in their vicious cycle of arrest, detention, and inhumane treatment.”