"Hopefully, this settlement will bring some measure of closure for the heirs of Jessie Lee Williams, as well as the citizens of Harrison County," said Larry Benefield, President of the Harrison County Board of Supervisors.
Closure and costs. Benefield says those issues played a huge role in Harrison County's decision to settle its portion of a $150 million civil case with the estate of Jessie Lee Williams.
"There will be no admission to liability by Harrison County, the sheriff, or his deputies," Benefield said. "This settlement will be made to avoid possible larger financial obligations, substantial attorneys' fees and court costs."
The county agreed to a $3.5 million settlement. One million will come from the county's insurance policy. The $100,000 deductible has almost been met by attorney fees. The bulk of the settlement, $2.5 million, will be funded by a bond issue. Benefield says that will mean a small property tax increase for residents of Harrison County, starting in 2008.
"This amount of money is not unusual," Benefield said. "It's just we've never had to borrow any money, to my knowledge, for this purpose."
Williams died while in custody at the Harrison County Jail in February, 2006. A criminal trial will be held next month. This settlement takes care of the county's part of the civil case.
"We think there's been good policy changes so hopefully, this will never happen again," Benefield said.
After reading the prepared statement and answering reporters' questions, Benefield issued an apology.
"We just want to apologize to the family of Jessie Lee Williams for the unfortunate thing that's happened," Benefield said. "Again, our hearts go out to them, his heirs, his children, and certainly this settlement would not ever replace Jessie Lee Williams. But we as a county feel very bad about what has happened. And certainly our hearts will be out to those members of his family. We feel very strongly about this."
Benefield says it will take between 60 and 90 days to borrow the money to pay for the settlement. This civil case is not over yet. There are other defendants still named in the lawsuit.
The settlement with the City of Gulfport came later in the day. Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr told WLOX News the city's liability is a fraction of what the count must pay, though he would not disclose the amount until he goes over the agreement with the city council.
"We're proud to provide some resolution to this issue. We feel that it's time for this to be resolved," Warr said.
The city will not have to borrow to pay the settlement. The mayor says it's within the limits of the city's insurance deductible.