Former Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) Corporal Tommy Morris, 29, pleaded guilty to conspiring to cover up the beating of an inmate and to encouraging other officers to provide false information to investigators, the Justice Department announced today.
“The State of Tennessee entrusted this defendant with the responsibility to act lawfully as a corrections officer by supervising those in his chain of command and by treating inmates humanely and in a manner that complies with the U.S. Constitution and other laws,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division. “Instead of acting lawfully, this defendant violated the public trust, stood by and did nothing as junior officers unjustly beat an inmate, lied repeatedly about the beating, and tried to persuade other corrections officers to lie about what happened. This defendant’s criminal misconduct violates both our law and common decency, and the U.S. Department of Justice will not stand for it. The Justice Department will continue to work hard to ensure that all Americans are held accountable for breaking the law, especially those who abuse their position of authority in the law to do so.”
“Correctional officers must abide by and adhere to the same laws they take an oath to uphold and enforce,” said U.S. Attorney D. Michael Dunavant for the Western District of Tennessee. “Instead of serving and protecting the public, this officer actively participated to conceal the use of physical force by other officers to violate the civil rights of an individual. As a result, he will now be held accountable, vividly illustrating that no one is above the law.”
“When a correctional officer violates the civil rights of an inmate whose safety he is charged with, it undermines the respect and reputation of all law enforcement officers,” said Douglas M. Korneski, Special Agent in Charge of the Memphis Field Office of the FBI. “This plea should be a reminder that the FBI takes the allegation of civil rights violations seriously, and will vigorously investigate these kinds of cases, and bring to justice any law enforcement officer who violates the constitution and the trust of the people.”
With his guilty plea, Morris admitted that, on Feb. 1, 2019, he and other correctional officers entered the cell of R.T., an inmate in the mental health unit at the Northwest County Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, Tennessee. Morris stood by as a junior officer instructed another officer to cover the surveillance camera in the cell. Morris then watched as three officers punched R.T. in retaliation for R.T. spitting earlier.
After the officers left R.T.’s cell, Morris, who was the ranking officer, suggested that they should falsely claim that R.T. injured himself while he was on suicide watch. Morris and another officer then directed the others to adopt the false and misleading story. The officers agreed to cover up the unlawful use of force on inmate R.T.
Morris knew that the officers’ use of force should be reported to TDOC authorities, but he did not report the incident, fill out any paperwork, or instruct any of the other officers to take those steps. Instead, when a junior correctional officer asked Morris if he needed to fill out any paperwork, Morris falsely claimed that it would be handled and there was no need to do anything.
With today’s guilty plea, Morris admitted that he violated 18 U.S.C. § 371 when he conspired to cover up the beating of R.T. and that he violated 18 U.S.C. § 1512(b) (3) when he knowingly encouraged correctional officers to provide investigators with false and misleading information. The maximum penalty for the conspiracy offense is five years imprisonment and 20 years imprisonment for the obstruction offense.
Previously, former TDOC Correctional Officers Nathaniel Griffin, Tanner Penwell, Carl Spurlin Jr., Cadie McAlister, and Jonathan York entered guilty pleas for criminal offenses arising out of the assault of inmate R.T. Morris is the sixth and final defendant to enter a guilty plea.
This case was investigated by the Memphis Division of the FBI with the support of the TDOC, and is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Rebekah J. Bailey of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Pritchard of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee.