JACKSON COUNTY -- A federal judge has thrown out a jury's verdict that former Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd inflicted emotional distress on a deputy.
U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett said the jury had no evidence on which to base the verdict because they found Byrd had not sexually harassed Deputy Kristen Seibert in May 2012, as she had claimed. Starrett's ruling means Byrd no longer has to pay the $260,000 in damages the jury awarded Seibert for infliction of emotional distress.
Because Seibert could appeal the judge's ruling to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, Jackson County Attorney Ryan Frederick wrote in an email the county would have no comment, beyond saying county officials are "satisfied" with the judge's ruling.
One of Seibert's attorneys, Monte Tynes, said they will appeal the judge's ruling.
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"I'm absolutely disappointed with the judge's decision and feel like we have definitely met our burden of proof, which was confirmed by the jury's verdict," Tynes said. "We feel the 5th Circuit will ultimately reverse the judge's decision.
"With all of these cases, there is a high burden of proof. We have taken on the establishment and fought for people's rights, not only Kristen's but other people who live all over Jackson County and South Mississippi, to make sure things like this don't happen again to try and make it a safer place. I think what the jury did was the right thing. It's just disheartening that it was taken out of the jury's hands."
Byrd was forced to resign in December 2013 amid federal and state investigations that led him to plead guilty to charges involving intimidation of a witness and attempting to cover up his physical abuse of a man who stole a patrol car.
At the federal trial in Seibert's case, she testified about repeated incidents of Byrd's inappropriate sexual comments and overtures.
Seibert said Byrd ordered meetings with her behind closed doors, during which Byrd started making threats to move her to another job if she continued to refuse his advances, saying she should be "loyal" to him. She said he threatened that if she left the department, "he would ruin her career and give her a bad recommendation."
Seibert said Byrd continued to threaten her through other sheriff's employees after he resigned from office.
When Seibert testified before a grand jury during the investigation into Byrd on the unrelated state charges, she said sheriff's Capt. Mick Sears, then in charge of criminal investigations, sent her a text that said: "In life, there are winners and losers and you have to pick sides. If you pick the losing side, you die."
Starrett noted the text message, concluding in his opinion:
"It is conceivable that the jury credited the testimony cited above and found that Defendant Byrd intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon (Seibert) in retaliation for her testimony before the grand jury, without sexually harassing her. However, the Court notes that (Seibert) only testified as to a single occurrence involving Defendant Byrd unrelated to the alleged sexual harassment -- when he allegedly visited her office after the grand jury testimony and said, 'I guess you hate me too,' letting her know that he knew she had testified.
"The text message from Captain Sears could reasonably be interpreted as a threat, but (Seibert) provided no evidence that Defendant Byrd had any involvement with it.
"Therefore, the Court is left with a single comment from Defendant Byrd that is fairly innocuous on its face,"