John Drescher

In Harnett, a jail death and a cover up

Video shows this is true: The Taser death of an inmate in the Harnett County jail was not prompted by an altercation in the cell.

What followed was an epic coverup.

Larry Rollins, then the sheriff, spoke inaccurately about the death, which a state medical examiner called homicide.

Inmate Brandon Bethea, 24, was a troubled guy and a mouthy inmate. He was awaiting trial on charges of rape, illegally possessing a gun and armed robbery.

Bethea had a right to a trial.

One day in March 2011, Harnett jailers were placing him in a padded cell. Video shows that Bethea was not resisting.

A jailer held his Taser behind his back as Bethea was backing into the cell. The jailer fired his Taser and sharp electrical currents into Bethea’s chest.

Bethea fell but the jailer fired it twice more.

The officers left Bethea on the floor for 20 minutes. When a nurse checked on him, he was dead.

That is true.

That day, Sheriff Rollins assured the people of Harnett County that Bethea’s death could not have been avoided.

That was not true.

Rollins said the jailer had to deploy his Taser during an altercation with Bethea.

That was not true.

A detective from the sheriff’s office later filed an incident report. It might be the biggest whitewash ever.

The report said the jailer used the Taser to gain control of Bethea and restrain him.

That was not true.

The report said Bethea was alert at the time officers left him.

That was not true.

The report said the jailer who fired the Taser, John Clark, sustained minor injuries as a result of the altercation.

That was not true.

After the falsehoods from Rollins (who retired in March) and the incident report, Harnett County’s next move was to settle with Bethea’s family and make sure that no one ever, ever, ever knew what happened.

In the $350,000 settlement, the county admitted that Clark had fired the Taser into Bethea’s chest.

But the county said the detention officers did not leave Bethea alone as he died.

That was not true.

Clark faced no charges in Bethea’s death. District attorney Vernon Stewart said he didn’t think a grand jury would have indicted Clark.

Clark was not demoted and still works at the jail. The video shows that when Clark realized Bethea was dead, he was distraught and perhaps physically sick. Clark was taken to a hospital. He was not struck during the tasing incident.

This week, he said he wished he had died that day.

The incident would have remained covered up if not for The News & Observer’s Mandy Locke. She requested the video and, to its credit, the county met its legal obligation and released it.

Locke’s series, “Deadly Force,” reported on the use of force by the Harnett Sheriff’s Office.

The public needs a full account of what happened to Bethea. Was Clark acting on orders when he fired his Taser at Bethea? If so, from whom? Why did the detention officers leave Bethea when it was clear he was seriously injured? Did Sheriff Rollins and the investigating detective view the video before passing judgment? If not, why not?

In “Deadly Force,” Locke reported on the death of a man who was shot and killed at his home shortly after 3:30 a.m. by a Harnett deputy without a warrant. The U.S. Justice Department has said it is investigating that case. We don’t know if it is investigating Bethea’s death but that seems likely.

The settlement with Bethea’s family said if anyone asked them about his death, they were to say, “The matter has been resolved.”

That is not true.

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