Lawsuit: Death row counselor removed from job

Tribune-Star file/Austen LeakeDeath penalty opponent and attorney Ashley Kincaid Eve is shown demonstrating against the execution of Christopher Vialva on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020, across the street from the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute.  

A counselor on death row at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute has been moved out of that job after social media posts mocking an anti-death penalty activist and cheering on further executions, according to a defamation lawsuit.

The suit was filed Monday in Marion County Circuit Court by Ashley Kincaid Eve of Indianapolis, an activist who also is an attorney.

The defendant is Andrew Sutton, whom Eve identifies as a counselor in the Special Containment Unit (death row) at the federal prison in Terre Haute.

The Tribune-Star's email messages and call to the Bureau of Prisons seeking comment on Tuesday were not returned. The newspaper's attempts to reach Sutton by telephone for comment were not successful.

The lawsuit was first reported by Vic Ryckaert for FOX59 and for CBS4, who said he twice reached Sutton by phone, with Sutton saying, "“I have no idea what you’re talking about" before hanging up.

In her lawsuit, Eve writes she was working alongside the defense team of convicted killer Christopher Vialva, who was executed on Sept. 24. Although not listed on the defense legal team, Eve says she was working on media outreach in a clemency effort with the cooperation and consent of Vialva's lawyers.

She argues Sutton, under a social media screen name of “fozzythebear,” later made multiple posts insulting her, claiming she was not on Vialva's legal team and calling her a "crazy lady" and "a con artist looking for 15 minutes of fame."

In other posts, Eve said, the holder of the since-deleted twitter account mocked a media description of the final moments of Vialva's life and referenced hope for busy months in November and December on the Special Containment Unit, or death row.

Eve contends Sutton is that poster and used privileged information obtained through his job to taunt her. She says she has suffered emotional distress that has affected her job, her reputation and her ability to advocate. She also argues she fears retaliation or surveillance from the prison, a part of the federal government.

It is not clear whether Sutton remains with the Bureau of Prisons or in a Terre Haute assignment. Online information for the Special Containment Unit at the penitentiary currently does not list him as a counselor.

Eve seeks a jury a trial and unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, plus costs. The Marion County case number is 49C01-2012-CT-045464.

President Donald Trump's administration resumed federal executions after a 17-year pause in July and has carried out 10 executions since then. Three more executions were scheduled for January. Those, however, may be in doubt.

A federal judge has vacated the execution date for Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row. Under that order by U.S. District Court Judge Randolph Moss, the Bureau of Prisons cannot reschedule Montgomery’s execution until at least Jan. 1. 

Under Justice Department guidelines, a death-row inmate must be notified at least 20 days before the execution. Because of the judge’s order, if the Justice Department chooses to reschedule the date in January, it could mean that the execution would be scheduled after President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.

Two other federal inmates are scheduled to be executed in January but have tested positive for coronavirus; their attorneys are also seeking delays to their executions.

Mark Fitton can be reached at 812-231-4333 or mark.fitton@tribune-star.com

The Associated Press also contributed to this report. 

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