BESSEMER, Ala. (WHNT) — 44-year-old Thomas Lee Rutledge died in a private prison cell in the mental health unit at William Donaldson Correctional Facility on December 7, 2020, after a lawsuit says the inmate “literally baked to death in his cell.”
Now, two years later, a federal lawsuit over Rutledge’s death is claiming prison guards were aware of the extreme heat in all of the prisoner’s cells that night, but did nothing.
Rutledge, who had been convicted of capital murder on December 22, 1993, in connection to the shooting deaths of Kevin Edwards and Radshaw Whitman, had spent more than half his life in prison. He was 17 at the time of the murders.
Rutledge would be found in his cell, with a body temperature of 109 degrees. According to the lawsuit, he was “sitting near the window of his cell with his head/face out the window believed attempting to breath/obtain cool/cold air.”
An autopsy would later rule Rutledge’s death an accident, but his attorneys argue it was not.
The lawsuit, filed in Feb. 2021 on behalf of Rutledge’s estate and his sister, also claims prison officials not only knew the heating system in the mental health dorm was broken, but knew other men had died from extreme heat due to a broken heater, yet still left them to “bake” in their cells.
The lawsuit had originally named the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), but it has been since dropped from the case, though several prison employees and private contractors are still listed.
Those employees argue they are protected by “qualified immunity,” but that claim has not yet been resolved.
Corrections Investigator Clark Hopper was working the night Rutledge died of hyperthermia, according to an updated complaint filed in the U.S. District Court.
In a recorded interview, Hopper explained how he opened another inmate’s meal tray door to talk to him, but when he did, he said it was like “opening an oven and when you (are) getting something out of the oven it hits your face.” He said: “When he dropped his (meal door), it was, it was just, pardon the language, but it was hotter than three hells when it dropped.”
Judge R. David Proctor in Alabama’s Northern District who is over Rutledge’s case is also presiding over a case brought against the state by the U.S. Department of Justice for the conditions throughout men’s prisons.
According to AL.com, the Alabama Department of Corrections declined to comment due to pending litigation.