Hagan to file suit against county, sheriff's department

Ocean Springs alderman claims he was falsely arrested

mbbaker@sunherald.comJanuary 18, 2013 

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd

JAMES EDWARD BATES — SUN HERALD Buy Photo

JACKSON COUNTY -- Ocean Springs Alderman James Hagan plans to file a lawsuit against the county and the Sheriff's Department, claiming he was falsely arrested and maliciously prosecuted on child pornography, molestation and embezzlement charges, his attorney has notified the county.

The written notice from attorney Adam Miller to county officials also accuses Sheriff Mike Byrd and three detectives, including lead investigator Hope Thornton, of engaging in perjury, inducing others to give false testimony, violation of civil rights, false imprisonment, defamation, and witness tampering. Hagan will be seeking $500,000 in damages per violation.

The Mississippi Tort Claims Act requires notice of one's intent to sue be sent to a governmental entity within a year of the alleged offenses and 90 days before a lawsuit is filed. Miller sent the notice by registered mail to Jackson County Chancery Clerk Terry Miller and Jackson County Supervisor John McKay, who was board president until early January.

Hagan has said he was unfairly targeted. Deputies in 2011 arrested Hagan on charges of embezzlement, molestation and child exploitation for possession of child pornography. A grand jury found insufficient evidence to indict him on the embezzlement and molestation charges. He was indicted on a child exploitation charge, but the District Attorney's Office dismissed the case in November, citing insufficient evidence.

"They knew this was a sham from the beginning," Miller said Thursday.

Byrd said: "I welcome this lawsuit and hope Mr. Miller's statement is true. A civil trial will bring our side of this case to light, and the truth can finally be told.

"Unfortunately, my hands are tied by the rules of professional conduct, which prevent law enforcement officers from making extrajudicial statements about ongoing investigations …. That rule prevents me from commenting about specifics of any ongoing case. … If Mr. Hagan wants a court battle, I'm ready."

The notice says the injuries to Hagan began at Byrd's direction Nov. 29, 2011, with a search warrant for his Ocean Springs home, and they are continuing.

"At all times, Detective Hope Thornton and Sheriff Mike Byrd knew that the information that Detective Thornton provided to County Court Judge Larry Wilson in both sworn arrest affidavits and both sworn search warrants was false," Miller wrote. "Detective Hope Thornton and Sheriff Mike Byrd had direct knowledge that there was no evidentiary or factual basis with which to charge Mr. Hagan with any criminal conduct for either molestation or embezzlement.

"In addition, … Thornton knew that there was no evidentiary or factual basis in which to prove that James Hagan ever possessed, created or downloaded child pornography."

Despite that, Miller said, Byrd and Thornton arrested and jailed Hagan and had his children temporarily turned over to the state Department of Human Services.

Also, the notice says, "The sheriff asked the chief and deputy chief of police of Ocean Springs to advise a city employee that she needed to change her prior statements and provide false testimony and evidence" to a grand jury hearing evidence against Hagan in the embezzlement case.

The Sun Herald could not reach the Ocean Springs deputy chief for comment, but Police Chief Lionel Cothern said Byrd did call because he was concerned Hagan and Alderman Matt McDonnell had put political pressure on the witness "to make the case go away." That, Cothern said, "didn't happen either."

The notice says Byrd ordered the Jackson County Narcotics Task Force to put McDonnell under surveillance in an attempt to bring charges against him and influence Hagan's case. McDonnell said other law enforcement officials told him the sting was set up Sept. 4 in downtown Ocean Springs, but he wasn't there.

McDonnell said: "It is very disturbing to me that I would be targeted for no reason. I've never had any dealings with the sheriff or any other law enforcement agency that would warrant or justify such a target. I certainly hope that these matters will be fully investigated by the proper authorities and that this apparent abuse of power will no longer go unchecked."

McKay said he couldn't say "a whole lot" because of the litigation. He did say, "I hope two wrongs don't make a right. I hope the taxpayers of Jackson County don't end up paying this bill. I regret what happened to Mr. Hagan."

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