High Court holds city of Jackson liable in Ruth Harrion wrongful death suit

Published: Apr. 29, 2022 at 4:01 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The state’s highest court has upheld a lower court ruling, in part, finding the city of Jackson liable for the wrongful death of Ruth Helen Harrion.

The decision was handed Thursday, years after Harrion was killed after calling police about a prowler lurking outside her home.

The 911 dispatcher did not tell her to stay on the phone, and court records indicate that after she hung up, the prowler came into the home, raped and killed her.

The court found that the city was liable for the 911 dispatcher’s actions and that the city must pay $500,000 under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act.

However, the court reversed the jury verdict awarding the victim’s beneficiaries $1 million after they found the city had violated Harrion’s constitutional rights.

Jackson had previously asked for a summary judgment in the case, saying it should not be held liable for the actions of its employees.

At the heart of the matter was whether the actions of one dispatcher and two officers led to Harrion’s death.

The high court upheld the lower court’s findings that the dispatcher’s “failure to ask Ruth Harrion to remain on the telephone violated written procedures,” and that had the victim remained on the line “the officers would have known that the prowler had gotten into the house and could have... saved Ruth Harrion.”

The incident occurred on July 16, 2014 at around 3:23 that morning. The 67-year-old woman called 911 to report a prowler around her home.

Debra Goldman, a shift supervisor with the Jackson Police Department, answered the call.

“As ship supervisor, Goldman was responsible for following applicable policies and procedures and make sure her subordinates followed those procedures,” the court wrote.

According to city policy, for calls of Harrion’s type, callers are to be kept on the line whenever possible, at least until an officer arrives on the scene.

“For prowler calls specifically, ‘the call-taker/dispatcher shall determine whether the prowler was seen or heard, as well as his last known location.”

However, court records indicate that Goldman took Harrion’s name, told her police would be dispatched and the call was disconnected.

“It is disputed which party hung up first. Undisputed and likewise shown by a recording of the call is that Goldman made no attempt to keep... Harrion on the line,” the court wrote. “Nor did she attempt to determine the prowler’s location or whether Harrion had seen or heard the prowler.”

Two officers, Tammie Heard and Derrick Evans, were dispatched to the scene. Heard testified that the two arrived and conducted a perimeter check, but did not go into the backyard.

“After they checked around the house and observed no signs of forced entry, they knocked on the front door, but no one answered, and they heard nothing out of the ordinary.”

Afterward, officers told dispatch to call Harrion, who never answered. One of the officers heard the phone ringing from outside the house. They also knocked on the door, but no one answered.

At the time, Alonzo Stewart was “holding Harrion hostage” and her body was “found later that day outside the home.”

Plaintiffs sought to show that the officers failed to follow JPD orders by not entering the home. JPD General Order 600-4 states that officers are to “establish communications with the situation.”

Heard testified that, “if there had been any sign that someone had broken into Ruth Harrion’s home, she and Evans would have forced their way inside. But she said that, without any sign that a prowler is inside, the police cannot force entry into a house,” court records indicate.

A detective who responded to the scene later did find evidence of forced entry, including a turned-over recycling bin and burglar bars that had been tampered with.

According to court records, Harrion was “severely beaten, raped and strangled, and she sustained a fatal gunshot wound to the left eye.”

Harrion attempted to shoot Stewart but missed, and he took the gun away from her.

The officers and the dispatcher were not held personally liable in the case.

Stewart was “adjudicated mentally incompetent to stand trial,” court records show.

The opinion was written by Justice James Kitchens and was joined by Justices Leslie King, Josiah Coleman, Dawn Beam, and Michael Randolph.

Separate opinions were written by Justices James Maxwell, Robert Chamberlin, David Isshie, and Kenneth Griffis.

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