American Bar Association
Media Alerts
Media Alerts - Strickland v. Halsey - Fourth Circuit
Decrease font size
Increase font size
September 14, 2015
  Strickland v. Halsey - Fourth Circuit
Headline: Red Onion State Prison Reprimanded Again - Correction Officers Potentially Liable for Prison Inmate's Murder of Another Says Fourth Circuit

Areas: Criminal Law, Constitutional Law

Issue Presented: Whether qualified immunity protects state correctional employees from a 42 U.S.C. §1983 suit after one prison inmate is murdered as a result of favor swapping and insufficient searches of another prison inmate.

Brief Summary: In 2007, Robert C. Gleason entered Wallens Ridge State Prison after receiving a life sentence for murder. During his stint there, Gleason strangled his cellmate to death. At his court appearance for that murder, Gleason threatened to kill again if he was not executed. Subsequently, Gleason was transferred to Virginia's "supermax," Red Onion State Prison. While serving time at Red Onion, Gleason began masterminding his next murder. To this end, he befriended another inmate, Aaron A. Cooper, and convinced Cooper the two should teach Red Onion a lesson. In particular, Gleason convinced Cooper they could embarrass prison officials if Gleason pretended to murder Cooper during outdoor recreation time.

Sometime later, the two men were sent to the yard for a scheduled outdoor recreation time. The two officers who searched Gleason did not do so thoroughly, and Gleason was able to smuggle a rope into the recreation area. Gleason strangled Cooper with the rope while no officers were present.

The administrator of Cooper's estate sued under 42 U.S.C. §1983 alleging four Red Onion employees violated Cooper's 8th Amendment rights by being deliberately indifferent to his safety. Two of the officers were sued because they knew about Gleason's threats and were on duty at the time of Cooper's murder. The other two officers were sued because they conducted an insufficient search that allowed Gleason to sneak the murder weapon to the scene. The district court on summary judgment granted all four accused employees qualified immunity.

On appeal, the administrator of Cooper's estate challenged the lower court's determination that qualified immunity protected the officers involved. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Court decided that two of the four officers were not protected by qualified immunity. The court explained that qualified immunity balances two important interests: (1) the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly, and (2) the need to shield officers from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably. An officer is entitled to qualified immunity in a §1983 case such as the instant one if (1) the conduct did not violate the constitutional right at issue or (2) the right was not clearly established at the time of the incident. The court emphasized that only one prong of this test must be satisfied. Then the court noted that the United States Supreme Court has long established the requirements for an 8th Amendment failure to protect claim. Those requirements are (1) a denial of the victim's rights must be sufficiently serious and (2) the prison official either purposefully caused the harm or acted with deliberate indifference.

Applying those rules to the case before it, the court first explained that the two officers who were on duty at time and knew of Gleason's earlier threats were protected by qualified immunity because their conduct did not violate the 8th Amendment. In particular, the court found that an objective person could not find the two performed in a manner that would be considered deliberately indifferent to a "substantial risk of serious harm" to Cooper.

The court then turned to the two correctional officers who searched Gleason just before he entered the yard. As to these two officers and the first prong of an 8th Amendment failure to protect claim, Cooper's death was a clear denial of the 8th Amendment. Turning to the second prong, the court explained the second prong is a subjective not objective test. Therefore, the case hinged on whether the defendants were subjectively aware of the risk of harm to Cooper. For a prison official to be liable under this prong, (1) the official must be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and (2) he must also draw the inference. In the instant case, the Fourth Circuit held that the two officers responsible for Gleason's search prior to recreational time should have known that there was a substantial risk of serious harm if a sufficient search did not take place. The inadequate search was sufficient for the two officers to draw the inference that a substantial risk of serious harm existed. It was the court's view that the officers did make that inference, and chose to ignore it. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit found that those two officers' actions satisfied the two-prong test and found that they were potentially liable and could not be protected under qualified immunity. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed and remanded in part.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.

Panel: Judges Wynn, Floyd, and Harris

Argument Date: 03/24/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 08/19/2015

Docket Number: No. 14-6229

Decided: Affirmed in part; reversed and remanded in part by unpublished Opinion.

Case Alert Author: Chaitra Gowda, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: Mary Lynn Tate, TATE LAW, PC, Abingdon, Virginia, for Appellant. Henry Keuling-Stout, KEULING-STOUT, P.C., Big Stone Gap, Virginia, for Appellees.

Author of Opinion: Per Curiam

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor:
Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 09/14/2015 10:30 AM     4th Circuit  

FuseTalk Enterprise Edition - © 1999-2018 FuseTalk Inc. All rights reserved.

Discussion Board Usage Agreement

Back to Top