‘Continuously victimized’: How a Fulton inmate’s death reflects a county’s criminal justice crisis

Samuel Lawrence’s case highlights dangers at Fulton County Jail as court backlog pushed jail population to the brink.
Samuel Lawrence

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Samuel Lawrence

Samuel Lawrence’s death stands as an especially troubling marker in what has been a tumultuous two years at the Fulton County Jail.

County records show Lawrence endured months of torment and neglect inside the jail. He lived in terror and fear of gang retaliations. He said he was beaten, bitten, tased and pepper sprayed. He begged the federal courts for relief.

“He was continuously victimized,” said Kenneth Muhammad, an attorney representing Lawrence’s family.

Lawrence’s case highlights systematic failures within Fulton’s jail and across its criminal justice system, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of the case has found. The AJC reviewed hundreds of pages of court records, jail incident reports and other public documents and also conducted more than a dozen interviews with attorneys, public officials, judges and activists that operate in Fulton County. Some spoke on background because of the sensitive nature of the topic.

First arrested for arson the day after Christmas last year, Lawrence spent roughly eight months in jail having never faced formal charges from District Attorney Fani Willis’ office. As Lawrence awaited his day in court, Sheriff Patrick Labat’s jail guards, chronically challenged by staffing shortages, were unable to protect him.

A jail guard found Lawrence’s body in his cell in August, the victim of strangulation allegedly at the hands of another inmate. He was 34 and died in legal limbo, a victim in the broader crisis within the jail and the county’s criminal justice system.

The strains on the system began during the pandemic as the court case backlog ballooned the jail population. But critics of Willis and Labat say they have not done enough to address the problems driving a tide of deaths in the jail, despite receiving tens of millions in additional taxpayer dollars from the county.

While Labat is legally responsible for ensuring the safety of the jail’s inmates, the crisis has been compounded by Willis, who has been blamed for not indicting and moving criminal cases through the courts fast enough. This helps fuel the dangerous overcrowding in the jail, the AJC’s review found.

Over the past two years, 24 people have died in the custody of the Fulton County sheriff. This represents a significant increase from the past five years, which averaged three or four deaths per year.

The spike in deaths has drawn the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Georgia legislature as both have announced investigations into the troubled facility in recent months.

Meanwhile, the county continues to look for ways to tackle the persistent backlog that has been blamed for driving the overcrowding and violence. In recent months, Fulton has had some success in easing the overcrowding in the jail by moving inmates to other facilities and reviewing cases eligible for lower bonds. The Rice Street jail population has dipped to under 2,000. Over the summer, the number had reached 2,700 detainees.

The sheriff’s office acknowledged the dire situation facing the jail, according to a statement by Natalie Ammons, Labat’s spokeswoman.

“The sheriff has been very vocal about the fact that the sheriff’s office is understaffed, underfunded, and the jail is overcrowded,” Ammons said. “It will take an updated staffing analysis to determine the number of staff necessary to protect the inmates in our custody.”

The sheriff and Willis both declined an interview request for this story. Willis’ spokesman Jeff DiSantis released the following statement:

“Whether a defendant is indicted does not determine eligibility for bond. This office has a Case Intake Division staffed with highly experienced prosecutors and investigators. We seek indictments once that team determines that the investigation has found evidence to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt at trial, and not before. We cannot, and will not, indict someone before that determination has been made.”

The current crisis carries echoes of the past. Law professor Stephen Bright, who brought several lawsuits against the jail two decades ago when he led the Southern Center for Human Rights, said he sees parallels to a time when the jail was under federal monitorship for roughly a decade due to persistent health and safety issues.

“We’re right back to where we were,” Bright said.

Jail deaths climb

Throughout his eight months in custody, Lawrence suffered through multiple episodes of violence, according to jail records and court documents. He said he was targeted by other inmates and felt the sheriff’s staff did little to protect him. At times, Lawrence was suicidal.

In January, less than a month after he was arrested, a guard on rounds noticed Lawrence’s mouth was bloody. Several of his teeth were pushed back, while others were missing — injuries so severe he was transported to Grady Memorial Hospital for treatment, jail records show.

A guard asked Lawrence multiple times who hurt him, but he refused to say.

“He was scared that if he told me who harmed him, the ‘bloods’ would put a ‘hit’ out on him,” the guard wrote in an incident report.

In June, Lawrence refused to go back to his cell, telling guards that another inmate threatened to stab him, records show. The guards pepper sprayed Lawrence to force his return. The next month, another inmate attacked Lawrence, leaving him with a bloody face. And weeks before he died, Lawrence was bitten and scratched in a confrontation with a different inmate.

Then on Aug. 26, a guard discovered Lawrence unresponsive in his cell. An autopsy report by the Fulton County Medical Examiner ruled his death a homicide by strangulation.

“This could have been prevented if the jail had been kept and monitored by the right people and they did what they are supposed to do,” said Lawrence’s father, Frank Richardson. “My son was crying out.”

Within weeks of Lawrence’s death, two other Fulton inmates died, bringing the year’s death total to 10 for those in county custody. There were 14 deaths in 2022.

Labat and his office have blamed the deaths and violence on the conditions of the 34-year-old jail and overcrowding, which they say is out of the sheriff’s control.

Throughout the summer, the population of the Rice Street jail hovered around 2,700 — far exceeding its capacity of around 2,200.

In a recent hearing before a state senate committee investigating the jail, the sheriff’s general counsel Amelia Joiner told lawmakers that overcrowding strains the physical limits of the aging facility and contributes to the violence. In the first 10 months of the year, the jail has recorded 293 stabbings, 337 fights, 922 assaults and more than 1,186 confiscated shanks, she said.

Joiner noted that the population of the jail is driven by the courts and its backlog.

“We cannot fix the systemic problems that plague the Fulton criminal justice system,” Joiner told the committee.

Prosecutor power

Among the most influential figures in how many people are in jail, and for how long, is the district attorney, whose prosecutors have wide discretion in recommending bond amounts, making charging decisions and offering terms for plea bargains.

“Prosecutors are the most powerful players in the justice system,” said Michael Collins, an Atlanta-based senior director of government affairs for the national legal advocacy group Color of Change.

The backlog facing the county emerged out of the pandemic, as COVID restrictions on the court limited its ability to move cases along.

The precise number of currently unindicted cases is unclear, as the county does not regularly maintain records of the total number of unindicted cases. In September, Willis placed the number of unindicted cases at between 11,000 and 12,000, according to Collins.

Willis’ critics say her tough prosecution style and focus on resource intensive, high-profile cases such as the RICO cases she has brought against former President Donald Trump and the alleged gang “Young Slime Life” have strained her office’s ability effectively work through the backlog and handle more routine cases like Lawrence’s.

Atlanta DA Fani Willis answers questions for the press after the indictment of former President Trump and 18 others at Fulton County Courthouse on Monday, August 14, 2023 in Atlanta. (Michael Blackshire/Michael.blackshire@ajc.com)

Credit: Michael Blackshire

icon to expand image

Credit: Michael Blackshire

Lawrence spent more than 240 days incarcerated with no immediate end in sight. At the time of his death, he had still not been indicted by Willis’ office. Without an indictment, a case cannot move forward. A defendant cannot file for speedy trial, negotiate a plea deal or even have a case assigned to a judge.

While Georgia law requires that unindicted defendants be given bond after 90 days, those who cannot afford bond have few options but to wait in jail until a prosecutor decides to indict them. Defense attorneys liken his situation to a form of legal purgatory.

Lawrence did not get his first bond hearing for 109 days. In April a judge set his bond at $30,000. Indigent and chronically homeless, Lawrence could not afford his bond and remained in jail for several more months. He died just weeks before a scheduled bond reduction hearing.

“It is absolutely the case that a combination of a backlog, the unindicted cases and the high bond amounts are absolutely killing people,” Collins said.

County data shows that around 800 Fulton County detainees have not been indicted by Willis’ office as of Oct. 30, contributing to increasingly longer stays for those in the jail. In 2020 the average length of stay for a Fulton detainee hovered around 50 days, Fulton data shows. So far this year, the average length of stay has grown to around 65 days, county data shows.

Alton Adams, an executive in the Fulton County Manager’s office, told the county commission in August that the number of unindicted detainees is “a key leading indicator of our ability to move people out of the Fulton County Jail.”

Before the pandemic, roughly 10% of Fulton’s jail population was being held on unindicted charges on any given day, according the county commission. That number has grown to 27%, according to an Oct. 30 county report. Of the roughly 800 unindicted detainees, 370 had been in jail for more than 90 days and 17 for more than a year.

“I have my own stack of unindicted clients that I keep behind my desk to check on,” said Noah Pines, an Atlanta defense attorney and former prosecutor. “Some of those cases should be diverted or dismissed. If you want to charge them, charge them.”

In past statements, Willis has blamed much of the backlog on processing delays in the GBI Crime Lab and her predecessor, former Fulton DA Paul Howard. Willis has said she inherited roughly 18,000 unindicted cases from the previous administration. She has also said her office works to more thoroughly investigate cases before indictment, unlike her predecessor.

“Fulton’s jail is in crisis, but our investigation and indictment of cases are not the reasons,” she wrote in a recent AJC opinion column.

But attorneys say the problems have worsened since she took office nearly three years ago.

“There is no one to contact. Defendants are sitting. Nothing is happening. Cases seemingly disappear into this black hole until they are either indicted, or the state decides not to prosecute,” said Atlanta attorney Brian Tevis.

“Extreme circumstances”

Fulton County has responded with tens of millions of dollars in additional funding to try to reduce the case backlog, address jail overcrowding and protect jail detainees.

The commission has utilized $75 million in federal funding as part of Fulton’s plan to manage the court backlog, which county officials have dubbed the “ORCA” program. The program, now in its second year, is slated to run through 2024 and has been tasked with hiring 250 temporary staff to help lower the backlog.

Willis and Labat, both Democrats, took office in January 2021. In the past two years, the annual budgets for their offices have increased significantly. Willis’ has increased 61%, while Labat’s has grown by 59%.

In 2022, the Fulton Commission approved a $5.5 million increase in the district attorney’s budget earmarked for 55 new staff positions. Earlier this year, the commission allotted the sheriff’s office an additional $11 million for increased pay raises and overtime pay for staff.

Even so, Labat’s office has struggled to fully staff the county’s facilities. The county’s latest figures in December showed the sheriff had 157 staff vacancies. Often, a shortage of sheriff’s guards has contributed to violence in the jail, according to a review of court and jail records.

Just weeks before he died, Lawrence filed a federal lawsuit accusing the sheriff’s jail staff and deputies of neglect and doing little to protect him from repeated attack by other inmates.

“They don’t monitor these dorms. They allow it to happen,” Lawrence wrote.

Ammons, Labat’s spokeswoman, said the sheriff has taken several steps to lower the population at the main jail. She said he’s also implemented several measures to increase safety, including contracting with a security company to help support guards, performing contraband shakedowns, and providing double overtime to staff.

“While the jail is understaffed, the existing staff does the very best they can under extreme circumstances,” she said. “They are to be commended.”

Sometimes that isn’t enough.

In June, a Fulton County deputy testified in a court hearing that he was the only guard overseeing more than 250 inmates in a section of the jail when violence erupted in March. An inmate was severely beaten over the head and several inmates were charged with rioting.

“You’re asking them to police themselves on some level and that’s not a good place to be,” said Judge Wanda Dallas, who presided over the hearing.

Views of a cell in the medical observation unit (MOU) at Fulton County Jail shown on Thursday, March 30, 2023. The area monitors inmates with acute mental issues. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

icon to expand image

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Labat’s management of the jail and other detention facilities has drawn public criticism from Fulton County commissioners, who have expressed concern about the way county funds are being spent.

“What’s being done with this money?” Fulton Commissioner Bob Ellis, a Republican representing North Fulton, asked the AJC. “And why are these results as bad as they are?”

Last month, the commission abolished the county’s inmate welfare fund after Ellis discovered the sheriff’s office had used the money for promotional events, jugglers, consultants and more than $1 million on vehicles, including an $84,000 Chevrolet Tahoe driven by Labat. The sheriff said he took several corrective actions following this revelation, including firing the administrator of the fund.

In October, the Fulton County Commission voted to rescind $2.1 million it had allocated for an electronic health monitoring system that used wristbands to keep tabs on at-risk inmates’ health conditions. The commission had originally approved Labat’s emergency request in April, but were alarmed to learn the sheriff had a previous undisclosed contract with the monitoring company, Talitrex, and just 15 of the 1,000 wristbands were in use.

“This is probably one of the worst contracts in my many years of public service that I’ve had anything to do with,” said Commission Chairman Rob Pitts, a Democrat.

Still, in recent months, Labat has had success in reducing the population at the main county jail on Rice Street by moving inmates to other facilities around the state. And Willis’ staff and Fulton County public defenders have met regularly to identify cases for bond reductions or release on ankle monitoring supervision.

But shifting inmates around may have its limitations long term. And Fulton’s ORCA program — and the more than 200 staff hired to address the backlog — is winding down next year, raising concerns that once that program ceases the backlog will again worsen if county taxpayers don’t approve millions in new funding.

Labat and Willis say their offices remain underfunded and both have argued that the way to permanently address the cycle of overcrowding and violence among the county’s detainee population is to start anew.

The DA and sheriff have backed a proposal to build a new county jail. But that will be expensive with an estimated cost of more than $1.7 billion. The Fulton County Commission formally directed county staff to explore planning and financing options for a new facility. If the county moves forward with the plan, the new jail would not open until 2029.

A new jail won’t solve the immediate backlog and the problems it has created.

“Everyone we have seen die this year, they’re dying from consequences of a poorly managed criminal legal system and not from the consequences of the building being a bad building,” said Devin Franklin, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights. “If we get a new building, the same problems will exist.”

Our reporting: The AJC has been following overcrowding and violence at the Fulton County Jail for the past two years. In August, we reported on the death of inmate Samuel Lawrence and a lawsuit he had filed before his death. Since then, reporter Dylan Jackson has dug further into his case, requesting public records and interviewing more than a dozen people, including family members, attorneys, judges and other public officials to understand what happened to him in the jail and the broader crisis within Fulton’s criminal justice system. The AJC will continue to follow the story and seek answers from public officials.