Crime, Law and Justice

Lawsuit alleges Sherburne County negligent in jail inmate's death

The exterior of the Sherburne County jail
Justice Lee White hanged himself in the Sherburne County jail on April 10, 2020.
Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

Sherburne County is facing another lawsuit in the death of a jail inmate who died by suicide.

Justice Lee White, 23, hanged himself in the Sherburne County jail on April 10, 2020. He died at a hospital 11 days later.

White's aunt and trustee, Christine Roybal, filed a federal lawsuit against the county and two correctional officers who were assigned to White's unit that day.

According to the complaint, a grand jury indicted White in October 2019 for an alleged criminal sexual assault that occurred on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in 2015. He was taken to the Sherburne County jail, which has a contract to house federal inmates.

The lawsuit alleges White suffered from serious mental health problems and suicidal thoughts while he was in the jail.

It says staff ignored warning signs and didn't adequately inspect White's special lockdown cell — the same one where another inmate, James Lynas, died by suicide in 2017. Sherburne County agreed to pay $1.3 million to settle a lawsuit filed by Lynas' family.

In a statement, White's attorney, Andrew Noel, said they want to know what steps were taken after Lynas' death, and how a similar event could happen again.

“Simple measures can prevent jail suicide, but effective prevention requires attention and accountability,” Noel stated.

The complaint says correctional officers checked on inmates through a small porthole window from a catwalk, which provided an obscured view of the cell.

It notes that an inspection of the jail by the Minnesota Department of Corrections in June 2022 found that well-being checks were conducted at least once every 30 minutes as required, but “at too fast of a pace to recognize signs of life.”

Jason Hiveley, an attorney representing the county, said he's reviewing the complaint and will file a response by May 8.

The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential phone & text crisis support. Call or text 988 to get started.

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