JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A civil suit can continue against a former Mississippi deputy who pleaded guilty on Aug. 3 to torturing two Black men and shooting one of them in the mouth, with the suit alleging the deputy is also responsible for the death of another Black man in 2021.
In a Wednesday ruling, Rankin County Circuit Judge Brad Mills allowed claims of excessive force to move forward against Hunter Elward, a member of a group of corrupt law officers who called themselves the “Goon Squad,” a moniker they adopted because of their penchant for violent tactics.
Monica Lee believes that Elward and a current deputy not linked to Elward’s crimes are responsible for the death of her son, Damien Cameron.
“Every day is a hurtful day for me,” Lee said in an interview. “I lost Damien because of those officers.”
Cameron, who had a history of mental illness, was accused of vandalizing a neighbor’s home in 2021 while living with his grandparents. Elward responded to the scene and chased Cameron inside his grandparents’ home. He shocked Cameron with a stun gun and punched him with a closed fist while deputy Luke Stickman kneeled on Cameron’s neck even as he cried out that he couldn’t breathe, Lee alleged in court records and interviews with The Associated Press.
Cameron later died at the hospital, and an autopsy report listed his cause of death as “undetermined.” A grand jury declined to indict Elward and Stickman and they were never convicted of a crime.
Trent Walker, one of Lee’s attorneys, said the judge’s ruling would allow them to “pursue justice for Ms. Lee and her family on behalf of her son Damien.”
Jason Dare, an attorney who represents the Rankin County Sheriff’s Office and its deputies in civil cases, declined to comment on the judge’s Wednesday order. Elward’s criminal attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
After Elward escaped the episode with no legal ramifications, he went on to brutally assault Michael Corey Jenkins and Eddie Terrell Parker during a surreptitious raid on Jan. 24, 2023. Elward and five other law officers entered a house without a warrant where they assaulted the men with stun guns, a sex toy and other objects. The deputies mocked them with racial slurs throughout the 90-minute torture session.
The episode culminated with Elward shoving a gun into Jenkins’ mouth and firing, lacerating his tongue. The officers then tried to cover it up by planting drugs and a gun on Jenkins.
The deputies pleaded guilty to numerous federal crimes last week and are scheduled to plead guilty to state charges on Monday. The charges followed an investigation by The Associated Press that linked some of the deputies to at least four violent encounters with Black men since 2019 that left two dead, including Cameron, and another with lasting injuries.
The episode is a product of a police culture that gave officers cart blanche to abuse their power, Lee said.
“They say one bad apple spoils the whole bunch,” Lee said. “It’s been going on for years.”
She believes Elward would not have assumed he could get away with his brutal crimes had he been held accountable for his alleged misconduct against her son years before.
Lee’s complaint says that Rankin County deputies, including Elward and Stickman, were allowed to turn their body cameras on and off at their own convenience “in order to cover up the deputies’ misdeeds.” The lack of supervision and training in the use of body cameras overseen by Sheriff Bryan Bailey “created an environment of indifference to the rights of citizens,” the complaint reads.
In a news conference after the former deputies pleaded guilty to federal charges, Bailey acknowledged his body camera policy had failed and promised to change it.
Lee said she is looking forward to her day in court.
“My baby came to me in my dream and told me, he said, ‘Mama, forgive them.’ I forgave them, but as they always say, you won’t forget,” Lee said. “And if that day comes in court, I will stand there and tell them I forgive them. Because I can’t get through Heaven if I don’t forgive.”
Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him at @mikergoldberg.