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Story Publication logo March 5, 2024

Felony Jail Time Could Await Law Enforcement Officers Who Sexually Abuse Detainees, Parolees Under House Bill

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'Goon Squad'

A sheriff's office unit beat, tortured, sexually assaulted, planted evidence, and falsely charged...

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Amber Jones was 21 in the summer of 2017—incarcerated for violating probation after three failed drug tests—when, she said, Clay County Sheriff Eddie Scott began forcing her to have sex with him. Image by Rory Doyle/The New York Times. United States.

Mississippi law enforcement officers who sexually abuse those detained or on supervised release could face up to five years in prison under a bill pending in the Legislature.

For more than a year, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting at Mississippi Today and The New York Times have investigated and exposed allegations of sexual assault and abuse involving sheriffs and deputies across the state.

Under Mississippi law, it is a crime for officers to have sex with those behind bars, but the law does nothing to prohibit officers from sexually exploiting those they arrest or detain.

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To close that loophole, state Rep. Dana McLean, R-Columbus, has introduced HB1540, which has been referred to the House Judiciary B Committee. “Someone in a position of trust should be held to a higher standard,” she said.

Jill Collen Jefferson, president of JULIAN, a civil rights and international human rights law firm, said she knows of “many instances when women have ‘consented’ to sleeping with law enforcement officials because they were threatened with charges or fines. To me, this bill is a cold look in the mirror for the state, and I hope that it signals a migration toward acceptance of women’s rights across Mississippi and the nation, accompanied by a reining in of law enforcement.”

Shawanda Canady says she was handcuffed and sexually abused by an officer who is now the chief at the Lexington Police Department, now under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

In a sworn statement, Canady said police rushed into her home in Goodman on Sept. 10, 2018, while she was talking to her grandmother on the cellphone.

Police arrested Canady’s partner and took him to the patrol car, she said, and that then-Officer Charles Henderson cuffed her hands behind her back and held her captive for more than an hour.

“The streets have been talking about how you have a fat cat and I would like to know what it’s like,” she quoted him as saying. “If I asked you to have sex, is it because you want to have sex with me or because you don’t want to go to jail?”

Then Henderson digitally penetrated her and asked if she had a condom, she said.

She moved closer to her cellphone in hopes of speaking to her grandmother, only for Henderson to grab the phone, she said.

“I told him I would wake my kids up if he didn’t let me go,” she said. “Henderson then threatened to call DHS [the Department of Human Services].”

In about 15 minutes, her aunt arrived, she said, and Henderson released her.

Afterward, Canady said, she complained to the city council.

A couple of months later, she said, Henderson came up to her while she was in a parked car, shone a flashlight in her face and said, “So, we can buy new cars but not pay fines. Do we need to have another session like we did last time?”

She said he then put handcuffs on her and said, “If you keep running your mouth, I’m going to take you to Greenwood so you will never see the light of day again.”

She said she spent the next three weeks in jail.

Lexington City Attorney Katherine Riley said Chief Henderson was “never charged with a crime against Ms. Canady.” Canady said the Goodman city attorney told her to press charges, but she never did.

Jefferson replied that when Canady tried to press charges, the Holmes County Justice Court rejected her filing. 

Justice Court Clerk Dedra Edwards responded that no one is disallowed from filing, but that if the charge is already filed in municipal court, it can’t be filed, too, in justice court because that would constitute double jeopardy.

Jefferson said Canady tried multiple times to press charges, but the city would not do so.

Riley said video evidence conflicted with Canady’s story about the alleged incident at her car. 

Asked what that video evidence was, she replied, “I have not seen the video and have only heard that it was a video from across the street that showed he did not approach the vehicle as she described. But I cannot verify that information.”

Jefferson said there is “no video evidence of what Henderson did to Ms. Canady in her home, and we know of no video evidence outside of that.”

Henderson referred all questions to Riley.

In a sworn statement, former Officer Maytrice Shields said male officers at the Lexington Police Department used their power to coerce women they detained to have sex.

They threatened to ticket or arrest women who refused to have sex with them, and they would toss tickets in return for sexual favors, she said. The police station would be littered, she said, with “dirty clothes and underwear, among other things.”

Shields said Chief Henderson began “an inappropriate consensual relationship” after hiring her in December 2022. A sexually harassing atmosphere pervaded the department with some officers joking “about using pink cuffs and sodomizing each other,” she said.

A month later, when she informed Henderson that she wanted to end the relationship, he responded by suspending her. When she tried to turn in her camera, she said, he snatched her arm, and when she pulled her arm away, he pushed her and choked her.

She never returned to the station.

Riley said the Holmes County Sheriff’s Office investigated Shields’ allegation of choking and “determined that the charge was unfounded by the witnesses that were present. … None of the witnesses saw her being choked, specifically the witness behind the dispatcher desk who saw the entire interaction.”

Jefferson responded that the sheriff’s office never really investigated what happened with Shields and what she witnessed.

Former Deputy Kendrick Slaughter said Noxubee County Sheriff Terry Grassaree asked him to tell two women under arrest that, if they would have sex together, their charges would be dropped.

Grassaree faces an April 8 trial in U.S. District Court on allegations he lied to FBI agents when they questioned him about whether he requested sexually explicit photographs or videos from Elizabeth Layne Reed, who was jailed for four years without a trial.

A new federal indictment accuses him of trying to destroy digital evidence on the cellphone that deputies gave Reed. After receiving nude photographs she took inside the jail, he reportedly wrote back, “Body looks perfect.”

In 2019, Reed told investigators that she had been coerced into having sex with two deputies who offered her a cellphone in exchange for her compliance. Instead of punishing the deputies, she claimed in a lawsuit against the county, Grassaree demanded she send him explicit pictures and videos of herself.

“It made me terrified to trust anybody,” she told the Times and Mississippi Today. “Women in jail and prison need to be protected.”

Through his attorney, Grassaree repeatedly declined to respond to any allegations because he's facing trial.

Sheriff Eddie Scott is shown in his office in West Point, Mississippi, on June 29, 2023. Image by Rory Doyle/The New York Times. United States.

A few months after Eddie Scott became sheriff of Clay County in 2012, a woman accused him of coercing her into a sexual relationship after she was arrested.

Promising to use his influence in their rural community to keep her out of prison, she said, the lawman drove her to a hog farm to have sex in his patrol car on at least five occasions, and she provided copies of love letters Scott wrote her in prison as proof.

The revelations could have led to an internal investigation, a criminal inquiry or a public reckoning for the newly installed sheriff. Instead, powerful officials in Clay County took no action.

And the allegations didn’t end there.

Amber Jones of West Point said Scott repeatedly took her from the jail to an apartment, where he coerced her to have sex during her eight-month stay in 2017 and 2018. “I felt like I was worthless, like I didn’t have any control over my own body,” she said in a 2022 interview. “There was nothing I could do to stop it.”

In sworn testimony, Scott declined to say whether he had ever had sex with her, citing his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.

He also took the Fifth when asked if he tried to have a “threesome” with Jones and another female trusty from the jail.

Jones said the nightmare for her didn’t end when she left jail. She said the sheriff coerced her to send nude photos through Snapchat, the disappearing-photo app.

The sheriff denied these were nude photos. He said they were only “body shots” of Jones’ tattoos he has since turned over to the FBI.

After Jones posted on Facebook what she said had happened to her, she was arrested twice on drug charges after she said drugs were planted in her car. A recording of a purported drug dealer appears to corroborate her story.

After Mississippi Today and The Times ran the story on Scott on July 19, the sheriff created a Facebook post where he called the article “completely slanted, one sided and a story without any basis in fact. The article did not mention the fact that in late 2021, I reported these allegations to the local District Attorney’s Office, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations [sic] and requested the allegations be investigated. The article fails to mention that the investigating agencies declined to do anything based on a lack of credible evidence.”

District Attorney Scott Colom said Sheriff Scott contacted one of his investigators about Jones’ allegations and asked if the office could investigate.

The prosecutor said the investigator told the sheriff, “No, we don’t have the capability. Ask MBI to investigate.”

Bailey Martin, spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, said the agency found no record of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation investigating Sheriff Scott.

Former Parole Board Chairman Steve Pickett, who also served as a deputy sheriff and justice court judge, noted that the new bill extends beyond those in custody to include others, such as those still on probation, parole or other supervised release.

A lot of sentences in Mississippi include lengthy probation periods, he said.

“Folks confuse confinement with jail, but if you have a 10-year probation you are serving, you can be revoked at any time,” he said. “Unfortunately, some bad apples hold positions of power and have control over people who typically have no voice or access to an attorney. They remain vulnerable to those with the power to take their freedom.”

Last year, McClean pushed for a bill to repeal the spousal exception in the rape statute. It became law.

She hopes to do the same thing with this bill on officers. “The fact that it’s not criminal has got to be shored up,” she said. “These cases are falling through the cracks.”

Ilyssa Daly contributed to this report.


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