JACKSON, Mississippi — A federal appeals court is taking a second look at the case of a Mississippi prison guard who was cited for recklessness during a 2007 fight in which an inmate died and two others were injured.
Corrections officer Sharon Hampton and corrections officials were sued by the family of slain inmate Donald Reed Jr. and the injured inmates in 2008. Reed was serving a life sentence on two counts of homicide out of Scott County, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections. He had been a state prisoner since 1995.
Eventually, Hampton was left as the only defendant. In 2012, a federal jury in Aberdeen, Mississippi, ordered Hampton to pay $25,000 to each of the two injured inmates and $100,000 to Reed's family.
Hampton appealed, but the award was upheld in April by a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Earlier this month, the full 5th Circuit said it would hear a renewed appeal by Hampton. Oral arguments are scheduled for Sept. 22 in New Orleans.
Court records show Reed and two other inmates were in individual outdoor exercise pens at the prison when the incident happened. Prison officials installed individual exercise pens in 2000 after a series of violent incidents at the housing unit.
Hampton was on yard duty. She carried a weapon known as a block gun, which fires large rubber bullets. Court records show Hampton thought the gun was loaded and had extra rounds.
Testimony showed Hampton left the yard temporarily and gave the gun and pen keys to a supervisor, identified in records only as "Lt. Taylor." She kept the extra bullets.
The violence began when two inmates escaped the pens and charged Taylor. With no ammunition, he threw down the weapon and pen keys and fled inside a prison structure, testimony showed.
Prison officials said the two inmates used the keys to free others, then attacked Reed and two other inmates. Reed died after being stabbed 14 times; the two other inmates survived their wounds.
Court records show Hampton was suspended from her job for 10 days for her actions during the incident.
In its April ruling, the 5th Circuit panel found Hampton's actions showed indifference to the risk of inmate-on-inmate violence.
"The evidence suggests that she consciously disregarded the risk that the gun might not be loaded, which is better characterized as recklessness," two judges wrote.
Judge Priscilla Richman Owen said in dissent that there was no evidence Hampton knew the gun wasn't loaded when she left the other guard alone for what she thought would be a matter of minutes.