The cellmate of an infirm, 64-year-old man beaten to death at the Harnett County jail last year has been charged with first-degree murder, court records show.
Surles’ death is part of a grim trend in North Carolina county jails, where several men have died in recent years after violent encounters while locked up.
Devonte Jamal Headen, 26, of Cameron made his first court appearance in the murder case this week. He is a state inmate, serving a year-and-seven-month sentence on an unrelated felony assault by strangulation conviction in May, state prison records show.
A grand jury indicted Headen in October for the death of William Surles, a retired farm worker who was 10 days away from being released from a month-long sentence for a probation violation. Surles suffered from diabetes and had toes amputated.
A nurse found Surles dead in his cell the morning of Dec. 19, 2022, according to the state medical examiner’s report. An autopsy said he was struck several times in the head, and that blood stains on the walls of the cell he shared with Headen were inconsistent with a fall. The medical examiner determined the death was a homicide.
Surles’ daughter, Lawanda Snead, said she is glad Headen was charged, but that doesn’t solve all the issues with her father’s death. Headen should not have been in the cell with her father, she said, and jailers should have provided better supervision.
“The person that was watching over them should be charged as well, not just the inmate, because he’s got a duty to protect,” Snead said.
Headen had previously served four and a half years in prison on a robbery with a dangerous weapon conviction in 2015, state prison records show.
Five deaths linked to jail violence
Harnett County Sheriff Wayne Coats has said little publicly about Surles death inside the jail that Coats’ office runs. Neither he nor Harnett County District Attorney Suzanne Matthews responded to interview requests about the case against Headen.
Since 2019, at least five incarcerated men have died in violent encounters with others inside North Carolina jails, reporting by The News & Observer has revealed with court records and state inspection reports. Arrests have been made in all but one of those deaths.
There were no such deaths in the several years prior, state records show.
When investigating the five lives lost, state Department of Health and Human Services inspectors found that jailers were not checking on inmates at least twice an hour as regulations require for the safety and security of inmates and staff.
In Surles’ case, jailers should have checked him at least 44 times in the 22 hours leading up to his death, but the DHHS found only 32 checks. The DHHS report also found that the jail was understaffed when Surles died.
Supervision failures are a systemic problem in the county jails, a 2017 News & Observer investigation found. They have been identified in roughly a third of all jail deaths each year. State lawmakers have done little to punish jails over the lapses, even as deaths and supervision failures have grown.
Last year set another record with 77 people incarcerated in county jails dying from multiple causes.
The number of deaths inside North Carolina jails annually has more than doubled over the past seven years, DHHS records show.