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Jury rules for jail officers in excessive force claim

An inmate in the Wake County jail who sought $225,000 after allegedly being assaulted by two detention officers in separate incidents declined a settlement offer of $26,000 and opted to take his chances with a jury—and ended up with nothing.



Defense attorney Nick Ellis of Poyner & Spruill in Raleigh said Eugene Dunston made his nearly quarter-million dollar demand at the end of the pretrial conference.

“We never responded,” Ellis said.

In the complaint, Dunston said that in September 2010 he missed a meal tray because he was reading in his cell when the food arrived. After allegedly being cursed by officer Waco Douglas and told that he should have been in line, Dunston said he told Douglas—in the presence of another officer—that if Douglas had done the required cell checks, he would have known it was time to eat.

This angered Douglas, according to the complaint, and the officer allegedly swore at Dunston and told him he was going to beat him before removing his utility belt and attacking Dunston, beating him for more than two minutes.

Douglas painted a different picture, testifying that Dunston refused an order to take his meal tray and be seated, verbally and physically challenging the officer. Douglas admitted to taking the noncompliant Dunston down, but said he only “used the force necessary to finally bring the plaintiff under control.”

After being removed from the cell block, Ellis said, Dunston refused to be handcuffed and was again taken to the ground, this time by Lt. Duane Greenfield, whom Dunston accused, along with other officers, of beating him about the face.

Ellis said Dunston then refused to go into another cell before attempting to head butt Greenfield, who again took him to the ground.



As a result of the altercation, records show Dunston was convicted of assaulting a government official. He pleaded guilty to the crime reportedly in exchange for time already served, but his attorneys said exculpatory video evidence was never produced by the sheriff, despite a court order.

A year later, after being arrested for larceny, Dunston was being processed and strip-searched when he claims that officer Michael Hayes cursed him and slammed his head into a wooden bench as he was handcuffed, causing lacerations that took 14 stitches to close. Unlike the other incidents, this incident was in a strip-search room and out of camera view.

Ultimately, a jury decided that Dunston failed to prove his case. Since the officers were found not liable for Dunston’s claims of civil rights violations and battery, negligent supervision claims against Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison were dismissed.

Ellis said that while Dunston has a history of altercations with other inmates and officers, the case was a tough one because some jurors may also believe that law enforcement personnel cover for one another.

The jury instruction on a 1983 claim—violation of civil rights—specifically says officers are to be given discretion in their duties and “we’re not to look back with 20/20 hindsight into their decisions,” Ellis said.

“They face tense, rapidly evolving situations and have to make split second calls, and absent proof of malice or sadistic intent, their actions cannot be the basis of a civil claim for money damages,” Ellis said.


Amount: $0 (Defense verdict)

Injuries alleged: Facial lacerations, abrasions and swelling to shoulder, elbow and back and shoulder injury

Case name: Eugene Dunston v. Wake Co. Sheriff Donnie Harrison et. al.

Court: U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina

Case number: 11-CV-747

Judge: James Fox

Date of verdict: March 20

Demand: $225,000

Attorneys for defendant: Nick Ellis and Caroline Mackie of Poyner Spruill in Raleigh

Attorneys for plaintiff: Eric Doggett and Greg Kash of Raleigh

Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher

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