Lawsuit over suicide after political scandal ends for some
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed some defendants, but not others, from a civil rights lawsuit filed by relatives of a Mississippi man after he killed himself following a bitterly-fought U.S. Senate race.
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves on Tuesday ruled Mark Mayfield’s widow and sons can’t sue the Butler Snow law firm and its chairman, or Madison Police Chief Gene Waldrop, over claims they were part of a political network illegally retaliating against Mayfield’s political activity by pushing him to suicide after he was charged with conspiracy to exploit a vulnerable adult.
However, Reeves said Mayfield’s heirs could proceed with some claims against the city of Madison and said he wants more argument over whether they can sue Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins-Butler and two city police officers.
“The Mayfield family is thankful that Mayor Mary Hawkins-Butler and the city of Madison can now be held accountable for Mr. Mayfield’s death, as well as the police officers who issued the baseless warrants,” attorney Dorsey Carson wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “Although some defendants were dismissed, the heart of the Mayfields’ case is significantly strengthened by this ruling, and we look forward to having our day in court.”
Lawyers for the city, the officers and Butler Snow didn’t immediately respond Tuesday evening to requests for comment. Hawkins-Butler said she hadn’t seen the ruling and declined comment.
Mayfield, an attorney with his own firm, was prominent in the Mississippi tea party movement and supported state lawmaker Chris McDaniel, who lost to Sen. Thad Cochran in a 2014 Republican primary. The primary split voters between tea party factions backing McDaniel and establishment Republicans backing Cochran, who has since retired. Gov. Phil Bryant appointed former state Agriculture Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith to Cochran’s seat, but McDaniel is one of three candidates challenging her in a special election in November. The winner would serve the remainder of Cochran’s term.
The felony charge against Mayfield was tied to the unauthorized online publication of a photo of Cochran’s wife, Rose, who was living in a nursing home with dementia. Mayfield died before it could be prosecuted.
A blogger pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and spent several months in jail. The photo was an effort to draw attention to allegations that Thad Cochran was having an affair while his wife was incapacitated.
Mayfield’s mother had lived in the same nursing home as Rose Cochran, and the lawsuit says Mayfield showed another McDaniel supporter the location of Rose Cochran’s room.
Rose Cochran died in December 2014, and the senator married a longtime aide in May 2015.
The lawsuit had alleged that Butler Snow and firm Chairman Don Clark wrongly initiated the investigation, but Reeves ruled they were within their rights to tell police a possible crime had been committed.
“Nothing suggests that Clark made a false report,” Reeves wrote. “Nothing suggests that Clark’s report referenced Mayfield. And nothing suggests that Clark or his firm dictated how law enforcement went about its investigation.”
Reeves also dismissed Waldrop and Richard Wilbourne, the McDaniel supporter who supposedly conveyed Cochran’s room number to the man who ultimately took and published the photo. But he said he wanted more argument about whether Madison police officers Chuck Harrison and Vickie Currie couldn’t be sued, saying the sworn statements both filed seeking warrants against Mayfield had significant flaws. He gave lawyers for the officers 30 days to argue anew that are immune from the lawsuit.
The judge ruled that the city of Madison could be sued under a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision finding that people can sometimes sue over an arrest, even if there was probable cause that a crime had been committed, because the arrest was motivated by political payback. Reeves said he also wants to hear more argument over whether Hawkins-Butler can be sued for her potential involvement in illegal payback.