October 26, 2022
Jefferson City – ArchCity Defenders and the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a lawsuit against the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) for knowingly and repeatedly violating Missouri’s Sunshine Law by withholding public records related to the death of LeVaughn Dupree James, a 45-year-old man who died while incarcerated at the Northeast Correctional Center (NECC). The lawsuit was filed on behalf of James’ mother, Mary James, in the Cole County Circuit Court.
“I am very upset that they refuse to provide basic information about my son’s death that would answer the questions that his family deserves to know,” said Ms. James. “LeVaughn is my only biological child. LeVaughn was everything to me. It has been so hard since he has been gone because I’m so used to him calling me, cracking jokes with me, asking ‘mom, how are you doing,’ or asking what I’m cooking. It’s been very difficult and his birthday is approaching, so it’s going to be really hard for me.”
On May 22nd, James suffered a medical emergency that left him unresponsive in his holding cell. According to the lawsuit, it is unknown how much time passed between the incident and when NECC staff found James, when staff called an ambulance, and when Pike County EMS was granted access to provide potentially lifesaving care to James inside the prison. James was eventually transferred to Mercy Hospital where he was diagnosed with several conditions, including cardiac arrest.
James had called his mother nearly every day while imprisoned, so when she stopped hearing from him, Ms. James contacted the prison to inquire about her son’s well-being. However, she received minimal information. It wasn’t until several days after the incident that Ms. James was informed that her son had been transported to Mercy Hospital in St. Louis. James passed on June 1st.
Ms. James retained an attorney to investigate the events surrounding her son’s death. Since June 17th, Ms. James has filed four Sunshine requests through counsel, asking MDOC for items such as her son’s medical records, autopsy reports, death certificate, and more, along with public records explaining how MDOC investigates in-custody deaths. As of this lawsuit filing date, over four months later, MDOC has not released many records responsive to Ms. James’ requests, leaving her to struggle through the grief of losing her only son without knowing the truth about what really happened to him.
“The Department’s illegal withholding of records has only worsened Ms. James’ pain,” said Gillian Wilcox, Deputy Director for Litigation at the ACLU of Missouri. “She is not only grieving over the death of her son but also cannot get basic information about how he died.”
“This lawsuit is about transparency, and a mother’s right to know what happened to her son,” says Brandon Jackson, Staff Attorney at ArchCity Defenders. “The Missouri Sunshine Law exists to keep the public informed about governmental affairs. Over 100 people have died in the custody of the Missouri Department of Corrections this year. We also have reason to believe that overdoses in these facilities are on the rise. The families of the incarcerated have a right to know what’s going on.”
According to the MDOC’s record of in-custody deaths, LeVaughn is one of 107 people who have died in MDOC custody from January 1st to October 25th of this year, exceeding the total number of deaths in 2018, 2019 and 2021. In comparison to last year, the Department has already seen 25% more incarcerated deaths in 2022.
Read a full version of the petition here.
Angelo Vidal, Communications Fellow, ArchCity Defenders