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Jail death sheds light on pay; some sheriffs forced to sue their own county

Jail Death Marshall Co.jpg
Posted at 9:48 PM, Jun 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-10 00:10:47-04

DECATURVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The death of a man inside the Marshall County jail is raising questions about training and pay for jailers in small counties across Tennessee.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained exclusive video showing officers on the back of William Jennette as he begged for breath.

Jennette died last May after refusing to get into a restraint chair.

An autopsy listed "Asphyxia" as a "contributory cause of death" and ruled his death a homicide. Jennette had been hallucinating and detoxing after being arrested two days earlier.

The autopsy also listed "Acute combined drug intoxication" with Meth in his system as the cause of death.

Starting salary for jailers in Marshall County is currently $14.46 an hour. Other small, rural counties pay even less, prompting some sheriffs to take drastic action.

Decatur County Sheriff Keith Byrd sued his county to get deputies and jailers more pay. The small county in West Tennessee had denied pay raises to the Sheriff's department for years.

"I didn't want to sue the county, but I didn't feel like I had any choice," Sheriff Byrd said.

Two years ago, before his lawsuit, Decatur County jailers were paid less than $10 an hour.

"The kids at McDonald's were making nearly $12 an hour," Byrd said.

He said jailers, who often must deal with mentally ill or substance-addicted inmates, made less than fast-food workers and some were on food stamps.

"It was very difficult to hire people and even harder to retain people," Byrd said.

"Jailers were turning over so fast, it got to the point I didn't know who worked for me," Byrd said.

Attorney and former state senator, Roy Herron, represented Byrd in his lawsuit against Decatur County.

"When the only people you can hire are the folks McDonald's won't hire, you're not going to get the folks you want or the results you need," Herron said.

Herron also represented the sheriff in nearby Hardeman County in a similar lawsuit for more pay for his officers.

"I think the folks in rural counties right now are hurting desperately," Herron said.

When Herron saw the video from Marshall County, he immediately thought about training.

Officers had subdued Jennette, but kept him handcuffed on his stomach and even restrained his legs, keeping him in a position that can lead to suffocation.

An officer warned that the position was dangerous.

"Easy, easy remember asphyxiation guys, that's why I'm not on his lungs to let him breathe," the officer said.

Experts say asphyxiation can result anytime someone is kept handcuffed on their stomach especially if their legs are pushed against their back.

"When I saw the video and the fellow said, 'be careful don't suffocate him' and then they did suffocate him, I thought, it's not malice, it's incompetence," Herron said.

Herron said many smaller counties have incredibly high turnover for jailers because it's a tough job and pay is low.

The high turnover makes it tough to maintain well-trained officers. Marshall County said it does not keep records on turnover for jailers.

Its current starting pay is higher than Decatur County at $14.46 an hour.

"If you have constant turnover, you're not going to have the competence, the experience, the expertise you need to do terribly difficult jobs," Herron said.

Decatur County settled the sheriff's lawsuit last year. It agreed to pay deputies and jailers more. Starting pay for jailers is now up to $13.98 an hour.

The settlement did not include a pay raise for Sheriff Byrd, his salary is set by state law. The sheriff said he had to fight for his employees.

"I felt like I was backed into a corner, and I had to do something," Byrd said.

"Our quality and quantity of applicants has gotten lots better because my folks make a decent salary now," Byrd said.

Sheriff Byrd said he has not seen the Marshall County video, but he knows many other small counties worry about low pay for jailers and deputies.

He said the topic of "how to sue your county," was discussed at the last Sheriff's Association Meeting.

"They had a seminar on how to it. That's how bad it has gotten," Sheriff Byrd said.

The Grand Jury looked at the Marshall County case and did not file criminal charges against the officers. Marshall County and the City of Lewisburg are now facing a civil lawsuit over Jennette's death.