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Washington to pay $3 million settlement in alleged prison slaying after DOC ignored warnings about violent cellmate

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 23, 2021

By Jim Brunner Seattle Times

Washington state will pay $3 million to settle a lawsuit by the family of a man killed in prison after the state Department of Corrections failed to heed its own staff’s warnings about the man’s violent cellmate.

Keenan Thomas, 27, was found dead on Oct. 17, 2019, in his cell at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. The wrongful-death lawsuit filed by his family alleged Thomas had been brutally strangled in the middle of the night by his cellmate, James L. Boyd.

The settlement came as the jury trial in the civil case was ongoing in King County Superior Court, including testimony last week from two DOC employees who had advised against placing Boyd with a cellmate due to his history of brutal attacks on other incarcerated men. Officials at DOC headquarters overturned that recommendation without explanation.

“I think that the DOC’s negligence was obvious to nearly everyone in the courtroom. The citizens of our state expect much more and I hope that the DOC will use this as an opportunity to look within itself and take the steps that are necessary to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” said Seattle attorney Ed Budge, who represented Thomas’ family in the lawsuit, in an interview.

The $3 million settlement is more than double the $1.4 million paid out by the DOC in legal settlements for the entirety of the state’s 2021 fiscal year, according to data tracked by the state’s risk-management office.

Despite the large payout, the settlement agreement included language that the state “has not admitted liability in this case.”

The money from the settlement will be dedicated to paying expenses for Thomas’ four children, with the court determining in later proceedings how the money will be protected for their benefit, Budge said.

“Our deepest sympathies are with the Keenan Thomas family for the pain they suffer,” DOC Secretary Cheryl Strange said in a written statement. “We know a settlement can never truly compensate for the pain of losing a family member. We sincerely hope this resolution brings some solace to the Thomas family in the years to come.”

A DOC spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions as to whether the case will spur changes to the agency’s review process on whether to house incarcerated people in single or double cells.

Thomas, a Pasco resident, had started serving a sentence in March 2019 on domestic-violence related convictions, but with good behavior was due for release next summer. Before his death, he had been taking community college classes and was looking forward to an approved transfer to a minimum-security unit at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center.

He was placed in a cell with Boyd, who was serving more than 20 years in prison for convictions including assault, kidnapping and witness tampering connected with the shooting of a man in Moses Lake.

While in Grant County Jail in September 2014, Boyd attacked a sleeping cellmate, yanking him out of bed and choking him. He later assaulted a man at Clallam Bay Corrections Center. DOC screeners cited those incidents in recommending Boyd not be housed with another person in a cell — a call that was reversed by a committee at DOC headquarters.

Thomas was found dead in the top bunk of the cell he shared with Boyd in the evening of Oct. 17, wrapped tightly in a sheet and with his neck at an unnatural angle, according to police and DOC reports. Officers at the scene said they saw a pile of bloody linen or clothing on the floor, and a bloodstained jacket draped over Thomas.

Though Thomas had almost certainly been killed the previous night — some time after he and Boyd entered their cell at 8:34 p.m. and the next morning when Boyd exited alone at 5 a.m. — prison guards did not notice him dead in his bunk until after 5 p.m., despite hourly tier checks.

When they finally found Thomas motionless in his bunk, he was cold to the touch and his body was rigid. But DOC officers and medics pulled his body from the bunk and attempted CPR and cut into his throat to try to insert a breathing tube.

The disturbance of the potential murder scene “frustrated” efforts by a medical examiner to conclusively establish Thomas’ cause of death, according to records of the investigation, complicating a decision on whether to prosecute Boyd.

Boyd was found sitting on the cell’s toilet, his shirt up over his nose, wringing his hands, officers reported. He did not speak with investigators.

A Walla Walla police detective concluded last year there was enough evidence to charge Boyd with second-degree murder. James Nagle, the Walla Walla County prosecuting attorney, said in September the case was still under review. As of Monday, no charges had been filed.

Despite the unresolved criminal decision, the state’s attorneys in the civil case over Thomas’ death forfeited their right to dispute Boyd’s culpability in the civil lawsuit — because they blew a court deadline to respond to a key legal motion.

Budge said the settlement in the trial came after he had presented most of his case, and prior to an assistant state attorney general mounting the defense response this week.

“Undoubtedly, the state’s decision makers were watching the course of trial,” Budge said, citing “very impactful” testimony from the DOC staffers who explained in detail how they arrived at their recommendation to avoid placing Boyd in a double cell.

Teresa Alvarado, Thomas’ mother, who spoke on the phone with her son the night before he was found dead, also testified at length last Thursday afternoon.

“He (Thomas) was supposed to be in there for a short period of time. And he served a life sentence,” she said in an interview in September.

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