ATLANTA – The suicide of a depressed family man while in custody forced the Supreme Court to grapple Tuesday with whether the widow can sue a Glynn County policeman because he failed to conduct a required medical screening.
The court’s seven justices heard arguments from lawyers for Officer Henry Tucker and for Tammy Pearce, the widow of Christopher Pearce, a father of five, a Sunday school teacher and choir leader at People’s Liberty Baptist Church.
Tucker and another officer arrested Christopher Pearce in 2008 at his preacher’s home because he had taken a gun there and was acting strange. He had two suicide notes in his pocket.
Twenty-one minutes after he was put in a holding cell, he was found dead after he’d tied his socks together and hanged himself from a cell hinge.
Tucker admitted that he neglected to conduct the required screening before locking up Pearce while preparing paperwork. But his lawyer told the justices there is no way of knowing if the screening would have changed anything.
“We don’t know what these two individuals would have said to each other during a health screening,” said Steven Blackerby, Tucker’s attorney. “In addition to that, we still don’t know what would have happened had the screening occurred, even if we assume that the officer determined he was suicidal.”
Tammy Pearce’s lawyer, Paul Painter, said those were questions that a jury should decide.
Tucker’s lawyers had asked the trial judge to dismiss the case because he was protected from suit by government immunity while doing his job and that Pearce’s suicide wasn’t foreseeable. The judge ruled the trial should go forward, but the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled it should not, leaving the Supreme Court to make the final determination.
Painter told the justices Tuesday the suicide notes, the strange behavior and the medications for depression that a medical screening would have revealed should have all alerted Tucker to beware. But not following department policy to conduct a screening was the officer’s mistake that made him liable for a lawsuit.
“There is ample evidence that the suicide was foreseeable,” the attorney said. “It happens so often that they have to have a policy for it.”
A ruling from the Supreme Court is expected in three to four months.