Assault trial for former Adams County jailer begins

Published 12:26 am Wednesday, August 30, 2017


NATCHEZ — A former Adams County jailer underwent the first day of his trial for allegedly conspiring with inmates to assault another inmate.

Victor Lee Smith, an Adams County Sheriff’s Office deputy at the time of the incident, is on trial for aggravated assault and conspiracy to commit a crime for allegedly allowing an inmate to enter the cell of and assault Joseph Sturdivant on March 17, 2016. Sturdivant was reportedly found dead later that day hanging in his cell by a homemade rope. Smith is not charged in connection with Sturdivant’s his death.

Email newsletter signup

The case largely hinges on video surveillance from the day of the incident, which was shown Tuesday to the jury.

In the video, three cell doors are seen, with a fourth cell door just off camera. A key witness, ACSO IT Specialist Billy Neely, said Sturdivant’s cell was the third of four cells in block 3E. Neely said that no surveillance footage could show a view from inside an individual cell.

The video displayed in court Tuesday showed two inmates, identified as Jerome Harris and Kelcey Watson, in their block as they await their food trays. A jailer, identified as Smith, and other workers bring Harris his tray along with two others. One tray is for Sturdivant, who based on testimony was confined to eat in his cell because of an altercation earlier that day.

Then, Smith disappears from view, though the cellblock door is left open. Outside the door is a mechanism that opens and closes the individual cell doors within the block, which Neely referred to as a “pin box.” Smith also left the pin box open.

With both the cellblock door and pin box left opened, Watson appears to fiddle with the pin box in an attempt to open a cell. Neely notes that Watson appears to open the wrong door before eventually unlocking the door to Sturdivant’s cell.

Harris then leaps from his seat and runs into Sturdivart’s cell, the door closing behind him. Watson attempts to open the door, but it appears to be locked again.

Moments later, Smith (identified again by Neely) is seen at the pin box before again exiting the frame. Smith reappears with a fourth food tray for Watson, then walks to Sturdivant’s cell door, looking through a small glass window on the door.

Drucilla Rounds, another jailer at the time of the incident, then enters the cellblock. Eventually, the cell door is opened, Harris exits and sits back down at the table to finish his meal. Smith and Rounds then exit the cellblock.

In court, Rounds testified that she heard a commotion that was “extremely” loud, even compared to noise typically heard in the jail. Rounds said she once she and Smith left the cellblock and she asked what happened, Smith allegedly told her Harris and Sturdivant were simply “fighting over some gang stuff” and that there was nothing to worry about.

Both Assistant District Attorney Tim Cotton — who is representing the state alongside District Attorney Ronnie Harper — and Neely noted that Harris appears to give a “thumbs up” gesture towards the cellblock door once the incident was settled. The video did not clearly show who, if anybody, was outside the door.

Defense attorneys Carmen Brooks Drake and Deborah McDonald made the case that Smith left the cellblock door and pin box open by mistake, chalking up his role to simple human error. In Drake’s opening statement, she called the assertion of a conspiracy involving Smith “crazy,” saying he had no motive to throw away his life to help the inmates commit an assault.

With each witness to take the stand, the defense asked the question if any assault was seen taking place in the video, to which every witness answered “no.”

Since this trial involves criminal charges, the state bears the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Smith committed the crimes he has been charged for. The defense also argued that even if Harris and Watson did are guilty, it does not incriminate Smith as a co-conspirator by merely being present at the time.

The trial recessed at approximately 5 p.m., and Circuit Court Judge Forrest “Al” Johnson called for a continuation starting at 9 a.m. today.

Johnson had the jury give their word to not read anything about the case in The Natchez Democrat or any other online sources before tomorrow’s continuation.

Once the jury exited the courtroom, Johnson noted for the record that the defense had requested the jury be sequestered, though Johnson denied the request because it came too late. He also said the affirmation from the jury that they would not read about the case was adequate.

Smith himself is one of the witnesses expected to take the stand today.