Washington County Sheriff's Department files answer to family's $20 million lawsuit regarding inmate death

Becky Campbell • Aug 21, 2013 at 10:31 PM

A Washington County Detention Center inmate who died after officers used a Taser and pepper spray to subdue him during an outburst was “extremely strong and manic,” according to the department’s answer to the family’s federal lawsuit.

Stewart W. Peppers, 22, died April 29 while being transported to the Johnson City Medical Center by ambulance. His family believes he was subjected to 20 minutes of being beaten, shocked by Tasers and sprayed with a chemical agent used to subdue people who resist police.

Peppers’ parents, Joe and Natasha Peppers, filed a $21 million federal lawsuit in July in an attempt to hold the sheriff’s office accountable for their son’s death. The suit names Sheriff Ed Graybeal and a lieutenant and five detention officers.

The younger Peppers was arrested April 26 after Johnson City police responded to a series of incidents along the Milligan Highway involving a gun, attempted carjacking, drugs, a broken window and a foot chase, according to warrants filed in Washington County General Sessions Court.

Peppers was housed alone in the jail when he became incensed, according to his parents suit, and began shouting obscenities at detention officers.

That’s the point both sides start disagreeing on what happened next.

The Peppers lawsuit claims their son was beaten by six detention officers, put in a restraint chair, beaten again, sprayed with pepper spray and tazed.

In an answer to the complaint, the detention officers adamantly deny that version of the events, and they “used the amount of force that was reasonably necessary to try to restrain and control and extremely strong and manic individual who posed as severe threat to the officers, to himself and to the security of the Washington County Detention Center.”

Greeneville attorney Jeffrey M. Ward filed department’s answer to the lawsuit Aug. 9.

The Peppers suit states the officers did not summon a jail nurse until they realized Stewart Peppers was not breathing, but the sheriff’s office denies that.

“Nursing staff was contacted to assess Mr. Peppers after the taser was deployed. The nurse arrived while Mr. Peppers was still resisting restraints. However, because of Mr. Peppers’ violent behavior, the nurse initially could not safely approach Mr. Peppers to assess him,” Ward wrote in the document.

Peppers stopped resisting “suddenly,” and it was determined he was not breathing and had no pulse. “CPR was started and EMS was called immediately,” the answer claims.

Peppers’ death is under investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and there is still no autopsy report. After Peppers’ death, Graybeal said it is standard procedure to call TBI in when there is an inmate death.

Related stories:

Suit filed in Washington County inmate death

Update: TBI investigating death of Washington County inmate

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