They said her disabled brother died in prison naturally. A lawsuit alleges otherwise
For more than 12 years, Kymberly Hobbs had taken care of her older brother, Charles "Chuck" Givens.
"I'm like his mother," Hobbs said.
She's still looking after him, even after his death.
Givens died last year at age 52, but he hadn't developed intellectually or emotionally beyond the age of 7 or 8, according to court documents.
Hobbs had served as Givens' legal guardian since 2009, though she lives in Lincoln, Ala. — more than 300 miles from Marion Correctional Treatment Center in Virginia, where Givens was incarcerated for a 2010 murder. He was housed in Marion's special unit for inmates dealing with disabilities and mental illness.
"I would see him whenever I could. We had phone calls and video chat and things," Hobbs said.
Though she didn't realize it at the time, she would last see her brother alive in December 2021 when he was hospitalized for pneumonia and hypothermia, Hobbs said. The fact that he suffered from hypothermia while being incarcerated raised some red flags and concerns, but she didn't have any reason to think beyond what prison officials were telling her, she said.
About two months later, on Feb. 5, 2022, Givens would be found lying dead on his cot at Marion.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think that it was what it was," Hobbs said of her brother's death.
Early on the morning of Feb. 5, Givens was last seen alive being escorted to his cell from his ward's shower room by Marion's correctional officers. This movement was captured on prison surveillance footage reviewed by NPR.
A lawsuit filed this February by Hobbs and her attorneys, Paul Stanley and Mark Krudys, alleges that officers Anthony Raymond Kelly, Gregory Scott Plummer, Joshua Jackson, William Zachary Montgomery and Samuel Dale Osborne participated in the savage beating of Givens in that shower room to some degree, ultimately killing him.
Jeremy O'Quinn, the attorney representing Osborne, declined to comment on this case. And Cameron Bell, an attorney representing the four other officers, didn't respond to multiple requests by NPR for comment. Attempts to contact the five officers directly were unsuccessful.
Osborne and his attorney, as well as the other four officers and their attorneys, have submitted documents denying the allegations that Hobbs makes in her lawsuit. Osborne's attorney filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which was denied.
A jury trial has been set to start on Aug. 19, 2024, according to court records.
Hobbs and her attorneys allege that while in the shower room for nearly 20 minutes, these officers dumped buckets of freezing-cold water on Givens, whipped him with towels and punched him. The lawsuit claims that Osborne didn't directly participate in the beating but failed to protect Givens or intervene to stop the others.
A medical examination dated a month after Givens' death says clearly that he died from "blunt force trauma," but the examiner did not declare it a homicide. The lawsuit says Assistant Chief Medical Examiner Eli Goodman, who prepared the autopsy report, updated his findings later on, testified before a Smyth County special grand jury and said that Givens' death was a homicide.
In response to NPR's requests for records related to the employment status of the five officers, the Virginia Department of Corrections said Kelly was transferred to a different facility on Nov. 10, 2022. The department did not explain the circumstances of his departure from Marion Correctional Treatment Center.
The other officers — Plummer, Jackson, Montgomery and Osborne — are still employed at Marion but were suspended. The department has not provided clarification on the dates of their suspension after repeated requests.
Jeffery Artrip, Marion's warden at the time of Givens' death, is currently the warden at Wallens Ridge State Prison, the Department of Corrections said.
"It's been a cover-up from Day 1," Hobbs said. "From the time it happened to the first original investigation, the DA's office, every bit of it, they have never wanted to take it serious. Or they knew it was serious but never did what they should have done."
She said that the officers have lied about what transpired in the shower room on Feb. 5, 2022. "We know for a fact that the officers have lied under oath. And nothing has ever been charged on them," she said.
A grand jury declined to bring a criminal indictment against the officers last year.
Stanley, Hobbs' attorney, said Marion officials suggested that Givens' injuries came from a possible fall and that Givens was a known fall risk. This was not the case, Hobbs and Stanley say. No one has come forward to say they witnessed this possible fall, and the injuries sustained by Givens don't align with a fall, according to the medical examiner's report.
Additionally, Artrip called Hobbs the day her brother died to tell her he died from natural causes — before any medical examination had been completed.
"The Virginia State Police did an investigation into Mr. Givens death, we are in the process of doing an administrative review now," Carla Miles, the deputy director of communications for the Virginia Department of Corrections, told NPR in an email.
Requests for additional records on prison officials' investigations were denied, as the department said it is "exercising its discretion to withhold these records in their entirety."
Hobbs told NPR she feels that the prison and other officials with the Department of Corrections were never honest from the beginning. She said they showed no interest in properly investigating her brother's death even after the results from the medical examination came through.
Givens' case is technically still open with the state police, but Hobbs and Stanley said there has been no movement on the case since the grand jury declined to bring a criminal indictment.
"I think it's a small town, a small community, and we're just going to take care of our own — the good-old-boy kind of thing," Hobbs said.
The case goes even deeper than Givens' death, Hobbs and Stanley allege. Evidence, including hospital records and an eyewitness account, suggests Givens was abused for years while at Marion.
Hobbs and Stanley say they believe that Givens couldn't report his abuse to authorities because of his diminished mental capacity and that he was targeted because of his disability.
"He was severely handicapped as far as his mental state. So they knew he couldn't tell people," Hobbs said.
Stanley said that what troubles him most about the case is "it seems that he was selected because he was the most vulnerable and incapable of defending himself or making any kind of complaint."
Hobbs also said she believes officials don't want to bring charges in this case because of who her brother was and the crime he committed.
"I've never defended what my brother has done. He was paying for what he done. Just because he was there doesn't make him any less of a citizen than it does anybody else," she said.
Inmates with disabilities deal with unique struggles in prison
When Givens was a young child, he suffered a catastrophic fall down the stairs. It left him in a coma for two weeks, and he woke up with permanent brain damage, according to court documents.
Givens was left with the emotional and intellectual development of a second- or third-grader, Hobbs said. He required assistance and supervision for daily tasks for the rest of his life.
As an adult, Givens also suffered from delusions, his medical history shows. In March 2010, Givens killed his mother's home health care nurse, Misty Leann Garrett. He reportedly told investigators that he'd been trying to get Garrett to date him and that Satan placed thoughts in his head. He fatally shot Garrett and later called the police to report himself.
Givens was initially found incompetent to stand trial, but a second psychiatric examination deemed him fit to stand trial despite the fact that court-ordered guardianship papers issued for Hobbs years earlier state, "Givens is incapacitated to such an extent that he is unable to care for himself."
Days before the murder trial was to begin, Givens pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.
"He wasn't competent," Hobbs said. "They were just really trying to push it and, I feel, make an example." She reiterated that he needed to be punished for his crime but that she still didn't agree with the proceedings of his criminal case.
He had a childlike mental state, "so if you're thinking a third-grader is capable of standing trial for murder, then you know there's issues."
The questions over Givens' competency and the allegations surrounding his death at Marion reflect the trouble that people with disabilities face when they come in contact with the criminal justice system, said Leigh Anne McKingsley, the senior director of disability and justice initiatives at The Arc. The organization serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
McKingsley says incidents like Givens' suspicious death happen elsewhere.
But "I think the difference is that we don't often know about it," she told NPR. "That's the scary part."
"We do have data from the [National Crime Victimization Survey] to show just how often people with [intellectual and developmental disabilities] are victimized" generally, she said. "The survey looked at categories of disability and found that people with cognitive disabilities, which includes IDD, were much more likely to be victimized compared to people with other types of disabilities."
This data shows that from 2017 to 2019, people with disabilities were victims of 26% of all nonfatal violent crime, while making up about 12% of the population. And the rate of violent victimization against people with disabilities was almost four times the rate for people without disabilities, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found.
But information on how many incarcerated people with disabilities may be abused or exploited in jails or prisons doesn't really exist, McKingsley said.
This is despite the fact that about 2 in 5 — 38% — of the nearly 25,000 incarcerated individuals surveyed across 364 state and federal prisons reported a disability of some sort, according to a report published in March 2021 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which analyzed data from 2016. That works out to some 760,000 incarcerated people with disabilities, according to The Conversation, a nonprofit news organization that publishes articles by academic experts.
There's evidence that people with disabilities in prison also serve longer and harder prison sentences and that while incarcerated they can be uniquely targeted for exploitation by fellow inmates and correctional officers. Despite this, McKingsley says she has seen that there is rarely proper support for prisoners with disabilities.
In addition to Givens' mental disability, he also suffered from a series of other health issues, including several hospitalizations for hypothermia, Crohn's disease and pneumonia while incarcerated, medical records shared with NPR show.
On the day of his death, Givens had defecated on himself and needed to be brought to a shower to clean up, Hobbs' lawsuit states. This was a frequent issue for Givens as he struggled with Crohn's disease, which causes inflammation of the digestive tract.
An inmate who said he witnessed Givens being beaten said in video testimony that this was an issue that had irritated officers before. This inmate was responsible for cleaning Givens' cell that day (something he had done frequently) and watched as officers brought Givens to the shower room early that morning. NPR is not naming this inmate out of concerns for his safety. Prison surveillance footage provided to NPR shows Givens wearing a red uniform as he was escorted out of this cell.
The witness walked in and out of the shower room to retrieve cleaning supplies and told investigators that he saw officers repeatedly hit Givens in the shower and pour cold water on him to the point where Givens' teeth were chattering. This witness said that at no point did Givens fight back and that he believed Givens didn't have the capacity to fight back given his disability.
Citing this witness's testimony, the lawsuit claims specifically that Plummer snapped a wet towel at Givens while Jackson and Montgomery dumped cold water on Givens. Kelly reentered the shower room several times and "violently punched Mr. Givens in the torso" and ribs, the suit alleges.
On the record and at the grand jury proceedings, the officers said that nothing out of the ordinary happened in the shower room, according to the grand jury report reviewed by NPR.
Prison surveillance footage provided to NPR shows Givens, wearing boxers, being escorted by four officers from the shower room and back to his cell. There are no cameras inside the shower room where the alleged beating occurred.
Stanley, Hobbs' attorney, maintains that the officers knew where the cameras were in the facility and chose this area specifically as the place to exact punishment for the mess Givens had made.
The security footage shows that when Givens was escorted outside the shower room, some 20 minutes after he entered, he was wearing boxers pulled far up past his navel.
Nearly two hours later, at 9:30 a.m., an unidentified guard appeared to look into Givens' cell for about 40 seconds before walking away.
For the next 30 minutes, several other guards, nurses and other prison officials went in and out of Givens' cell after he was discovered unresponsive. Shortly after 10 a.m., his body was transported out of his cell on a stretcher.
The call that changed everything
Roughly two hours after Givens was discovered in his cell and prior to any proper examination by a medical examiner, Hobbs was contacted by Artrip, the warden, and told that her brother had died due to "natural causes," according to the lawsuit.
She said, "They just figured natural causes because he had been sick" with pneumonia not long before. That was until she received a second call one week later, from a complete stranger.
A woman called Hobbs claiming to know details of Givens' death and that it was not natural.
"She went into detail on exactly what happened to him. She said that my brother didn't die of natural causes and he was beat to death. She told me the guards done it," Hobbs said.
This woman was the girlfriend of an inmate also incarcerated at Marion. The caller said she heard an account from the inmate, who himself learned of the alleged beating from the inmate who was cleaning Givens' cell on the day of his death.
Hobbs realized after this earth-shattering call that if this person were right, there would be evidence in the autopsy. Hobbs left messages with the medical examiner and waited.
Hobbs said that what this person said got the wheels turning: Maybe something really wrong happened here.
Hobbs thought again about that last time she saw her brother in the hospital, in December 2021.
"It was really weird how [prison officers in the hospital room] acted, especially in the shape that he was in. My brother was on the breathing tube and laying in the fetal position, was not restrained or anything, but we had five people from the prison there in the room," she said.
She thinks this was done to intimidate him.
The medical examiner's office reached out to share with Hobbs that the injuries her brother sustained aligned with a beating.
The medical examiner told her that "they were told when [Givens] was brought there that it was just natural, that they found him in his cell. But he said, 'When we opened him up, I knew that that was not true' " due to the level of internal bleeding they saw, Hobbs recounted.
She said, "I just fell apart at that point. I knew what the lady told me was true."
A photo shared with NPR of Givens' torso shows at least one green, purple and red contusion on the right side of his body and below his navel.
The Virginia chief medical examiner's report says, "The autopsy findings clearly demonstrate that the cause of death was blunt force trauma of the torso resulting in laceration of the spleen and massive associated internal bleeding. While it is possible that the decedent sustained the acute rib fractures and associated splenic laceration as the result of a fall, no fall or injury was witnessed."
The report goes on to say that the presence of abdominal contusions, bleeding of the small bowel "and the (unsubstantiated) report from a fellow inmate that the decedent was assaulted by corrections officers all raise the possibility that the decedent was involved in an unreported altercation."
Concluding that there was no substantiated evidence of Givens' beating, the medical examiner listed his manner of death as undetermined. But the autopsy report noted that this could change if more evidence became available.
Evidence points to long-term abuse, Hobbs and Stanley say
In investigating Givens' experience at Marion for the lawsuit, Hobbs' legal team has unearthed what it says is damning evidence of much wider issues at the prison.
Though the grand jury decided against filing a criminal indictment in Givens' death, it did express serious concerns with the reported conditions at Marion Correctional Treatment Center.
"Nearly every witness described the living conditions in this area of MCTC where mentally ill inmates are housed as unsuitable. Specifically, they described it as very hot in summer months and extremely cold in winter. More than one witness had observed ice formed on the water in toilets. We find these conditions to be inhumane and deplorable," the report said.
The inmate witness to Givens' alleged beating repeatedly said in an interview with police and Stanley, the attorney on Hobbs' lawsuit, that there was a series of issues at Marion involving freezing temperatures and no toilets in some of the cells for inmates. The lack of toilets meant that these inmates had to urinate in jugs and dump the waste outside their cell windows when they were not let out of their cells to use a proper bathroom.
The witness said in the video reviewed by NPR, "No way you should be housing people in there," referring to Marion.
He also said that he saw several inmates, including Givens, hospitalized in the prison medical unit for hypothermia several times because of the cold. Additionally, he said officers would purposely open cell windows (which inmates couldn't close themselves) during winter to expose inmates to the cold and would turn on a hallway exhaust fan to make prisoners colder just to punish them.
The Department of Corrections is not aware of any such complaints, Miles, the agency's deputy communications director, told NPR.
"We have regular sanitation inspections," Miles said, adding that the department has gone through various health and safety inspections and reviews by agencies including the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, the Office of the State Inspector General and the U.S. Justice Department.
"At no point have we been informed that conditions at Marion were unlivable," she said.
"All the living areas have heat. Inmates in Residential Units are let out at 6 am-11 pm," Miles added. "There is a push button system to notify the officer on duty to let those inmates out if they have to use the restroom after the allotted time. Inmates on this unit are provided urinals in case of emergencies. All other cells in the facility have toilets in them."
However, several hospital reports show Givens was repeatedly hospitalized for hypothermia.
Medical reports from Smyth County Community Hospital in Virginia show he was hospitalized on Feb. 8, 2021, and on Oct. 29, 2021, (during which doctors said Givens was "likely septic"), as well as on Dec. 1, 2021, for hypothermia and body temperatures between 87.2 and 90 degrees. Hobbs' lawsuit also mentions a separate hospitalization that occurred on Oct. 26, 2021, for hypothermia and cold exposure.
Hobbs' lawsuit also says that on June 17, 2021, Givens was seen in the same hospital for right leg bruising, swelling and pain due to an alleged fall about a week and a half earlier.
Still further, Givens' autopsy report shows prior bruising and unexplained
red welts on his arms and legs.
This is not the only time that Givens was injured during his time at Marion.
In 2018, an investigation was launched by the Virginia Department of Corrections Special Investigations Unit into an April 24, 2018, incident in which Givens sustained first- and second-degree burns to his scalp, abdomen, buttocks, right hand, thighs, penis and scrotum.
That day, corrections officer Johnny Pickle ushered Givens into the shower room to clean himself off after Givens defecated on himself, the investigation report says.
The report says that, according to Pickle, Givens repeatedly turned off the cold water and then said the water was getting hot. Givens reportedly did this two or three times while Pickle was supervising the shower room. Pickle told investigators that at some point, he gave the shower wand to Steven Thrasher, who was part of the inmate workforce at Marion and was assigned janitorial duties on the floor. Pickle then left the room and left Givens alone with Thrasher for about two minutes.
"Although Pickle denied seeing Thrasher spray Givens with water, Givens accused Thrasher of spraying him with a water hose and holding him underneath the showerhead," the report says. Thrasher denied this to investigators.
NPR submitted a request for records on other allegations of abuse at Marion to Virginia's Office of the State Inspector General. The agency provided a March 8, 2022, investigative report into allegations that a correctional officer physically assaulted inmates. This abuse allegedly occurred in a shower room and also in a back stairwell between floors at Marion where there are no cameras.
An agent interviewed the accused corrections officer on Feb. 17, 2022, and the officer denied all allegations in the anonymous complaint. There were no victims, witnesses, specific incident dates or other evidence submitted to support the complaint, so the investigation went nowhere.
Hobbs says she is seeking justice, above all else
So far, Hobbs says she and her brother have been failed by the very institutions that are supposed to hold wrongdoers accountable.
The grand jury met on Aug. 23 and Oct. 21, 2022, and heard the testimony of "Virginia State Police Special Agent Heath Seagle and multiple witnesses including Corrections Officers employed at Marion Correctional Treatment Center," according to the grand jury report filed to the circuit court in Smyth County on Nov. 12, 2022.
The grand jury concluded that Givens' death "is suspicious." It also said, "The testimony of each of the Corrections Officers was nearly identical but it was not consistent with the findings of the medical examiner nor was it consistent with the physical evidence. However, there is not sufficient evidence at this time to support an indictment. We recommend that the case be reconsidered should other evidence come to light."
According to the testimony of the medical examiner, officials at Marion were "nonchalant" after the examiner shared the findings with them.
In its report, the grand jury called this "irresponsible and unacceptable."
Additionally, the Department of Corrections didn't launch an investigation into Givens' death until after Hobbs' lawsuit was filed, although the Virginia State Police was looking into Givens' death as a homicide, Stanley said.
Stanley, the attorney on Hobbs' lawsuit, said the day that Givens died, a Department of Corrections investigator was called to look into the case. This is standard for every prison death that happens, Stanley said.
In this case, that investigator was removed, and the Virginia State Police was notified of the death and dispatched an investigator: Seagle. But this is an unusual step given the Department of Corrections' written procedure, provided to NPR by Stanley.
The department has not responded to NPR's request for information on how a death investigation occurs.
The procedure says that the state police "will not be contacted or requested to conduct or assist in any investigation." However, one exception is that the department's director may request an investigation by the Virginia State Police.
But it is currently unclear who made the call to Seagle's superiors to get a state police officer to tackle this investigation, Stanley said.
Importantly, Seagle had little experience investigating suspicious prison deaths, Stanley said. He believes officials at the Department of Corrections disrupted the initial steps of the investigation into Givens' death and wanted someone unfamiliar with the environment who wouldn't look too deeply into Givens' death.
"And that really was successful until [Hobbs] got in touch with me," Stanley alleges.
Artrip and other Department of Corrections officials were not made available to NPR for comment.
Corinne Geller, the public relations director for the Virginia State Police, confirmed to NPR in May that the agency's Wytheville field office responded to Marion on Feb. 5, 2022, the day of Givens' death, to investigate.
"Once state police completed its investigation, the investigative findings were turned over to the Smyth County Commonwealth's Attorney for review and adjudication," Geller said. She referred NPR to Roy Evans, the Smyth County commonwealth's attorney, whose office is responsible for bringing any possible criminal charges in the case.
Evans said the case "remains open in this office."
A spokeswoman for Virginia's attorney general, the state's lead prosecutorial arm, said of the case: "We cannot comment on pending litigation."
Hobbs has tried to get her brother's belongings sent to her, but her repeated requests to the prison have gone unanswered.
Both with the lawsuit and through telling her brother's story, Hobbs said, she hopes everyone she alleges was involved in his death is brought to justice. The lawsuit seeks at least $15 million in monetary damages.
"What I want is for them to be in prison. What I want is for them to stand for what they done," Hobbs said. "These people are getting paid to protect and serve. They're getting paid to do their job. They take an oath, and to me that should hold them higher and more accountable."
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