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Dallas County Jail Inmate's 1990 Death Will Finally Get Its Day In Court

Jim Finnel

Fallen Cannabis Warrior & Ex News Moderator
Texas - Charles Ray Sempe entered the Dallas County Jail in 1990 for a misdemeanor drug charge and was killed minutes later from a blow by another inmate after he changed TV channels.

He was in an overcrowded holding tank where hardened criminals were serving prison terms alongside men jailed for minor crimes such as unpaid traffic tickets. Sempe's two sons were in elementary school at the time.

Twenty years later, they will have a chance to prove to a jury that the county failed to protect their father.

Chris and Carl Sempe, their father's sole heirs, filed a state civil-rights lawsuit against the county in 2000. After a legal fight that went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, Sempe's children will finally get their day in court when this unusual case goes to trial in February.

The Sempe case is similar to a recent jail death. In October, inmate Bernardo Mario Peña was struck by another inmate and hit his head after a dispute.

Peña, 44, was in the jail on a parole violation. He died at Parkland Memorial Hospital after surgery for a serious head injury. Arthur Ferguson, 50, has been charged with criminally negligent homicide in connection with the death. Peña's family members have said they plan to sue the county.

Legal experts say that even for a civil-rights case, the length of time it's taken to get the Sempe case to trial is rare.

Mark Haney, a Fort Worth trial lawyer specializing in civil-rights cases, said memories fade and witnesses disappear over time and that it usually plays to the defendants' advantage. However, if a case has made it past all the appeals, it's usually "pretty solid," said Haney, who has successfully sued Dallas County over conditions in the jail.

Looking for closure

Carl Sempe, 27, who lives in El Paso, said he's happy that the case is finally going to trial. He said he has fond memories of playing football and going to movies with his father.

"I'm a little irritated it's gone on as long as it has," he said. "It sounds like Dallas County is dragging its feet."

Chris Sempe, 29, who lives in Milford, said his life has been difficult without his father and that he is hoping for some closure.

"I'd hate for anyone else to go through what I've gone through," he said.

The Sempe family will have the difficult task of proving to a jury that county officials were deliberately indifferent to a clearly established constitutional right, Haney said.

The case is being closely watched by other Texas counties. El Paso County, for example, filed a brief in support of Dallas County during its Supreme Court appeal, as did the Texas Association of Counties.

The Sempe sons' lawyer, Robert Dowd, estimates the county has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on its decadelong effort to have the lawsuit tossed out on appeal. He said the county probably spent more money on legal fees than what his clients initially asked for to settle the case.

The county hired Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell to handle its appeals. The county's bill for that legal work wasn't immediately available.

Dowd, a Dallas business and tax litigation attorney, said he took the civil-rights case – his first – because Sempe had worked for a client of his and because the same thing could have happened to anybody.

"This case bothered me," he said. "I didn't like that this kid was killed because he didn't have $200 for a bond."

When Sempe entered the county jail, it was crowded with state prisoners because the state, faced with its own crowding problem, didn't have the space for them, Dowd said.

The county earned a lot of money housing state prisoners, he said.

The crowding problem got so bad, county commissioners had to build a second jail tower that opened in 1993. Dowd said the inmates were "running the asylum" and the county knew about it.

"It was like a prison," he said. "You shouldn't be placed in a prison when you haven't even gone to trial yet."

John Wiley Price, the only current county commissioner in office at the time, said he doesn't recall the case or know about the lawsuit. County lawyers could not be reached for comment.

Breaking tank rules

Sempe, 30, was arrested on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge in Lancaster in April 1990.

When he couldn't afford his $200 bond, Sempe was placed in a holding tank with 46 other men, including felons, records show. The tank's capacity was 24 inmates.

One of those men was Darrell Keith Hartfield, a "jail tank spokesman" who helped guards maintain order, the wrongful-death lawsuit said. Fights were common, it said.

When Sempe changed the TV channel, Hartfield, who was 19, approached him from behind and punched him on the right side of the head, reports said. Sempe fell and hit his head on a steel door frame – a fatal blow, reports said.

Hartfield was later convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He served about a year and a half of that sentence before he was released on parole; he later returned to prison for violating his parole conditions.

In changing the channel, Sempe had violated the rules of tank 8-P-14, meaning he had to be punished by Hartfield, who had done the same thing to other inmates in the past, the lawsuit claimed. County officials were aware of Hartfield's role of enforcer, it said.

The inmates had "taken control of the tank" because county officials ignored the inhumane and overcrowded conditions, the lawsuit said. Dowd said there were no cameras in the cells and that guards were rarely around.

If there was an incident in the tank, the inmates would handle it themselves to avoid angering guards who had to respond and fill out paperwork, he said.

Hartfield told a psychiatrist that he was in the jail longer than anyone else and thus was at the top of the inmate hierarchy, court records show. Hartfield was serving a two-year prison term for a probation violation on a ******* charge.

Hartfield believed Sempe was challenging his authority by changing the channel, the psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Pearson, wrote in his report.

"In order to re-establish his dominance, he attacked Mr. Sempe in what appears to be a completely unprovoked manner," Pearson wrote.

Hartfield said in a recent deposition that the other inmates came to him when Sempe changed the channel.

"They felt like I was the person to keep the peace. I was a peacemaker," he said.

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Source: dallasnews.com
Copyright: 2009 The Dallas Morning News, Inc.
Contact: Dallas Morning News
Website: Dallas County Jail inmate's 1990 death will finally get its day in court


New Member
Rats in cages...I say we keep em there, But let the non violents go. :roorrip:


New Member
putting people in inhumane cages makes them inhuman. i saw a show on pbs where there was a test with rats. some were put in a cage where each had enough food and water and personal space. others were placed in another cage with severe overcrowding. the first were normal and happy but the latter were very aggressive and anxious. and us schools are suffering from over crowding as well as the prison system which is most likely adding to violence on campuses.


New Member
Yet another useless death in the so called war on drugs. Some poor guy gets busted for his personal stash and pays the ultimate price cause some republicans have decided that the weed is evil and anyone associated with it must die or at least go to prison. Yet, no one has ever died from smoking the weed.
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