DeMontae Ware wasn’t even supposed to be in jail when he was was killed by his cellmate in September 2014.
Ware had been arrested a year earlier by Georgia Tech police and charged with criminal trespass and public indecency, both misdemeanors. At the time of his death, he had already completed a diversion program for people with mental illness, which led to the charges against him being dropped.
But Ware, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, was still in the Fulton County jail three months after those charges were dropped. That’s when Bobby Wynn, an inmate who had threatened the life of the last person he’d bunked with, was moved into his cell.
Within hours, Ware was dead.
Ware’s mother, Linda Michelle Ware, has filed suit in Fulton County Superior Court against Fulton Sheriff Ted Jackson, several jail employees and the jail health care provider, Corizon, claiming that they failed to protect her son. Ware’s death was preventable, the suit said, if the jail had only followed its own procedures and had not put a violent inmate in her son’s cell.
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“He should have been released,” said Otis Babbs, Ware’s stepfather.”That just added insult to injury. He could have been home with us now.”
Spokespeople for the sheriff and for Fulton County attorney Patrise Perkins-Hooker declined requests for comment on the case. It’s unclear why Ware was arrested instead of given a citation and why he was kept in jail after charges were dropped.
Wynn, who had bipolar schizophrenia, was considered a “very troubled inmate,” the suit said. Before he was brought into Ware’s cell, Wynn allegedly told jail staff he planned to strangle his previous cellmate with a rope made out of a T-shirt. He then showed them that rope.
In addition to the threat and an attack on his previous cellmate, Wynn had threatened to kill the sergeant on duty. Another cellmate had accused him of raping and beating him. And in the last of his seven arrests between 2011 and 2014, he struck someone “violently in the head twice” while trying to steal a cell phone. He was awaiting trial on a charge of robbery by force when he was moved into Ware’s cell.
Wynn had also served one year of a five-year sentence for possession of a firearm as a convicted felon.
“In our mind, there was plenty of warning and evidence that (Wynn) was violent,” said John Merchant, the attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Ware’s mother.
A few hours after Wynn was placed in Ware’s cell in September 2014, Ware was found strangled with a strip of bedsheet bound around his neck and his hands tied behind his back.
Wynn said “I had to kill him,” a statement from the Fulton District Attorney’s office said. Ware had defensive wounds on his body. Wynn did not. Wynn is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for Ware’s murder.
“He had a beautiful personality, very easy-going,” Babbs said of Ware. “If he had money, everybody was going to have pizza and cigarettes.”
Ware was a traveller, his stepfather said. The 26-year-old often travelled from their Chattanooga home, but would always call to check in with his parents.
But after Ware failed to call them after a few weeks away, his parents spent months trying to find him.
Calls to Chattanooga-area police turned up nothing. It was only when a bill from Grady Hospital arrived in the mail that Ware’s parents had an inkling he might be in Atlanta. Thinking he might have been arrested for sleeping in a park, they started to call local jails.
Babbs and his wife called Fulton County three times, he said, but were always told that Ware was not there. They only learned he had been after his death. It is unclear whether Ware was actually in the jail at the time they called, though he would have been in custody, possibly in a mental health facility.
Ware’s mother “cries almost daily,” Babbs said.
“We were devastated over the loss of our son,” he said. “It’s been a hard and trying time for us.”
At the time of Ware’s death, the Fulton County jail was under a decade-long consent order. It was overcrowded and understaffed, and with faulty locks on the jail’s cells, inmates could wander unimpeded. There was a culture of violence, the lawsuit said.
Understaffing could have played a role in Ware’s death, Merchant said, because Wynn was not properly supervised. He also said information about Wynn’s mental health that could have kept him from being placed with Ware was not correctly tracked.
Fulton County Chairman John Eaves has been outspoken about the need to treat mental health inmates better. About 70 percent of inmates booked into the jail have mental health issues, he said, and it has become a “convenient dumping ground” for the mentally ill.
The county is working to address the reasons people commit crimes, he said — like mental illness — in the hopes that it will treat the cause, and keep people from being arrested again and again.
“I fundamentally believe the majority of people who commit crimes commit them for a reason,” Eaves said. “If you treat those reasons, people are less likely to recreate the crime in the future.”
Ware’s death underscores the need for treatment centers other than jail, said Mary Sidney Harbert, a senior investigator with the Southern Center for Human Rights.
“We don’t want people going to jail and becoming injured, disabled, maimed or killed,” she said. “In Mr. Ware’s case, he should have been released. In my opinion, Mr. Ware is the kind of person who if the community had appropriate resources, wouldn’t have gone to jail in the first place.”