A former Connell prisoner almost beaten to death by his cellmate is suing the state and 45 Department of Corrections employees in federal court for failing to keep him safe while locked up.
Scott William McDonald, 48, was seriously hurt -- including suffering a brain injury and loss of his left eye -- when he was attacked with a smudge pot three years ago at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center.
His cellmate, Kenneth Smith, 35, is facing a Sept. 19 trial in Franklin County Superior Court on charges of attempted first-degree murder and first-degree assault.
Smith, who is now being held at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, would face a mandatory life sentence if convicted and if prosecutors prove he's a "persistent offender" with two previous convictions for "a most serious offense."
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Richland, alleges the Department of Corrections and its employees failed to properly care for McDonald when they made him stay in the same cell with Smith, who had a higher custody classification and a history of violent offenses.
Hoquiam attorneys Paul L. Stritmatter and Karen K. Koehler, who are representing McDonald, also claim the state and other staff members at Coyote Ridge improperly allowed Smith to have a religious smudge pot in his cell.
Smudge pots are used in some Native American and Wiccan ceremonies to burn incense or sage and create smoke.
Inmates must register their religious belief to have "a sacred item," like a smudge pot or a rosary, and the items must first pass approval.
Court documents allege that the corrections department violated its own policies by allowing Smith to have the cast iron pot rather than one made of wood or seashell.
Cast iron is a material banned by the agency because of its ability to be used as a weapon, documents said.
On June 29, 2009, Smith allegedly put the smudge pot in a pillow case and bludgeoned McDonald's head 15 or 16 times, documents said.
The handle of the metal pot broke off during the repeated blows.
Smith and McDonald were on the second tier of a medium-custody unit. McDonald was rushed to a Seattle hospital and remained in a coma for almost a month.
McDonald is serving an eight-year sentence for a 2007 attempted first-degree robbery conviction from Benton County.
Smith had been in prison since 1996 and is serving a 26-year term for two counts of first-degree assault and one count of second-degree assault in Snohomish County.
They were cellmates for about 41 days before the incident, according to a response filed by the state's assistant attorneys general, Carl P. Warring and Jason D. Brown, in Spokane.
The morning of the attack, the two were involved in a fight and McDonald allegedly injured Smith, documents said. McDonald then left the cell, but when he returned the fighting continued.
According to McDonald's suit, Smith's history of violence should have kept him out of Coyote Ridge.
The Connell prison opened as a minimum-security prison, then expanded to include medium-custody offenders. The assault was the "first big incident" at the prison after the expansion, officials said at the time.
McDonald was classified as a minimum custody offender, documents said.
Smith had repeatedly been placed in administrative segregation because of violent behavior, which included assaulting other prisoners and corrections staff, possessing a homemade weapon and inciting riotous behavior.
"Smith had been deemed a threat to others and the security of the institution prior to this incident ..." McDonald's attorneys wrote in court documents. "Defendants knew, or should have known, that Smith presented an extreme risk of harm to others if not properly controlled."
In April 1996, Smith was being held at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, and his review by state officials said he should be in a close-custody unit. His review the following two years listed five assaults involving other offenders and two malicious mischief incidents, and a recommendation he remain in maximum custody.
In 1998, Smith threatened to kill a corrections officer. The next year he was put in segregation after fighting with another inmate, documents said.
In March 2000, two saw blades were found hidden in Smith's cell and after being put into segregation again, authorities found a metal shank hidden inside his radio, documents said.
Four years later, two concealed knifes were found in his cell and he was again placed in segregation for "being a threat to security and the orderly operation of the facility," documents said.
Smith also apparently assaulted a corrections officer in October 2005, causing an injury that required medical attention.
On May 2007, corrections employees recommended Smith remain in segregation until he could be transferred. The review said authorities received information that Smith might pose a threat to the facility, documents said.
And he reportedly assaulted two other inmates in 2008 and April 2009.
It's unclear when he was moved to Coyote Ridge, but he had been cellmates with McDonald since mid-May 2009.
After the alleged attack, Smith was transferred to the intensive management unit at Walla Walla.
Since then, Smith reportedly has threatened to harm another inmate in September 2010, assaulted an inmate and corrections officer in November 2010, and threatened bodily harm to another inmate this past January, documents said.
"It was feasible for defendants to have kept Kenneth Smith in a high-security state prison based on his violent offender status prior to the brutal attack on (McDonald,)" McDonald's attorneys wrote.
The suit also alleges staff at Coyote Ridge weren't properly trained to respond to an fight like the one between McDonald and Smith, they failed to have the right number of employees on duty to protect inmates and they didn't have an adequate monitoring system in place, which contributed to the slow response.
McDonald, who is now at the Monroe Correctional Complex, initially filed the lawsuit in March against the state and a counselor at Coyote Ridge.
A second suit was filed last week naming dozens other defendants, including DOC Secretary Bernie Warner and Coyote Ridge prison Superintendent Jeff Uttecht.
This week a judge set an October 2013 trial in McDonald's initial case. No hearings have been scheduled in the second case and the two suits have not been merged.