Clifton Donald Harris was looking at spending the rest of his life behind bars when another inmate at the Sacramento County jail beat him senseless.
Harris, 61, remains in a vegetative state at UC Davis Medical Center, and the courts are trying to decide what will become of him.
Now the county is facing a civil lawsuit that alleges deputies told men assigned to the same cell as Harris, who is gay, that they would get better accommodations at the jail if they attacked him. Harris, 61, a career criminal awaiting a possible life sentence, wound up in a coma after the beating on June 16.
The Superior Court complaint, filed by Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin, names the county, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, and individual deputies and asks for unspecified financial damages.
According to the complaint, the county and its deputies knowingly put Harris in harm’s way because they knew of his “status as a gay man and the animus that others felt toward” gay people.
The beating “was the predictable and intended result” of deputies placing him in the same cell as the unidentified inmate who attacked him in hopes of getting better jail accommodations, it says.
The Sheriff’s Department has been silent on the circumstances of the beating. Sheriff’s spokesman Tony Turnbull declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.
Family members have told The Bee that Harris suffered traumatic brain injuries and a broken jaw as a result of the brawl, and is unable to move or respond to commands. On Friday, they said he was “still in a coma state.”
Harris has more than 14 felony and misdemeanor cases on file in the Sacramento and Solano County courts dating back to 1979, including drug possession, assault and robbery convictions. At the time of the attack, he was awaiting sentencing on a 2015 assault conviction and was facing 96 years to life in prison.
Since Harris is comatose, prosecutors have said he no longer poses a public safety risk and have asked a judge to release him on his own recognizance, meaning he would be free without bail. His public defender said the county wants to release him to save money, since they are obligated to pay for his care while he is in custody.
On Friday, Harris’ attorney, Sacramento County Deputy Public Defender Alicia Hartley, said she plans to call for the assault case to be dismissed when the sides return to Sacramento Superior Court in September.
“Our position is that this is a gentleman that we’re told is not likely to regain brain function or competency,” Hartley said after Friday’s hearing before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Delbert Oros. “Why do we have to wait for him to pass and let this linger in the justice system? It’s our position that the case should be dismissed.”
Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Danny Jensen said the case should move to sentencing if Harris’ health improves, saying he is “attempting to get medical professionals to help the court make a decision.”
Family members said they have no interest in securing his release, preferring that he stay at UC Davis.
Friday’s hearing was to determine whether Harris should be released on his own recognizance or if his case should be dismissed outright because of his still-comatose state. But Oros, new to the case after returning to the bench from medical leave, set a Sept. 15 date for the sides to return and said a final decision will take time.
“It’s apparent to the court that what is necessary is more information. I should be getting information from the attorneys, not newspapers or other channels,” Oros said from the bench. “I’m not going to rush into a decision,” he said, adding that “this is going to be a slow procession forward.”
Among the questions that remain are where Harris will be housed if his case is dismissed and what will happen with his medical care.
Meanwhile, Harris’ family members hoping for news from the Friday hearing, now must wait for the September date.
“We’re going to continue doing what we’re doing now – keep pressing forward on faith,” said Cathy Lester, Clifton Harris’ sister, before the afternoon hearing. Harris, she said, “has a determination to live. He’s had bouts of pneumonia, infections, even in the state of his brain, he’s fighting. Why not fight on his behalf?”