WDAM challenges injunction; ruling next week

By Mike McDaniel - bio | email | Twitter | Facebook

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Thursday morning representatives from WDAM-TV, a television station serving the Hattiesburg and Laurel areas of south Mississippi, appeared in Forrest County Youth court challenging an order restricting the station from using video which shows alleged abuse inside the Forrest County Juvenile Detention Center.

Judge Mike McPhail will now have to decide whether the injunction should stay in place.

"The taxpayers need to know what has gone on in their youth detention facility," said WDAM attorney Leonard Van Slyke.

For now, WDAM can't air what Van Slyke says is a matter of public interest.

"The television stations feels that it's very important that the public be allowed to see that material," said Van Slyke.

A former guard says video now in the possession of WDAM shows abuse of juveniles at the hands of guards while in the juvenile detention center over the last three years. One guard in particular, who WDAM discovered through a public records search was fired in 2009 due to misconduct, is shown in multiple scenes.

The sheriff's office confirms the firing was because of the guard beating a juvenile.

"There's no attempt to cover up anything, everything is transparent," said Forrest County Sheriff's Office attorney Jim Dukes, Jr.

Dukes says charges are in the works for the guard who was fired and that the FBI also saw the video.

"There has been an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, [they] came down reviewed the tapes, reviewed the policies and procedures, what was done regarding each officer, the discipline and the criminal charges and found that there was nothing further needed other than an informal investigation, cleared the sheriff's department and the detention center and we have proceeded forward," said Dukes. "Sheriff Billy McGee does not tolerate that type of abuse especially in the detention center involving youth."

When it comes to the video Dukes says it should not be accessible to the public due to juvenile privacy acts and that charges are also in the works for another former guard who the sheriff's office believes made the video in the first place. In the meantime, more allegations are coming out against the detention center.

"Even though, yes, they did do things to put themselves there, they're still children," said one mother of an alleged victim. The mother adds the guard who was fired, was fired for beating her child in December of 2008.

"His lip was busted. I noticed that he has scars on him and I asked him what happened and he told me [the officer] did it to him," said the mother.

Dukes says the allegations played out on video were handled appropriately and assures the center is now operating smoothly.

"In every bunch you're going to have one bad apple, sometimes two and those bad apples have been plucked from this tree and any further will be done the same way," said Dukes.

Even so, Van Slyke says the video speaks for itself. Video he adds that would be edited to protect the identities of any juveniles and argues that the station's right to air the video is protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution..

"These are strong allegations of abuse. The taxpayers need to see that. It's one thing to have an allegation, it's quit another thing to see it with your own eyes," said Van Slyke.

Judge McPhail is expected to make a ruling on the injunction early next week. In addition to the video, WDAM has interviews with three alleged victims but at this time, with a court order still in place, the station is not presenting them.

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