Tragic Death Under Sheriff Mark Melton's Watch
Some tragedies in life never come to light. Injustices that only family and friends are made aware of and then are left to endure. And they get no answers. No closure. And no voice. They suffer day-by-day with the knowledge that their loved one will never have justice.
Such is the case for the family of Kelsey Jerome Rayner Sr.
You may not have known Kelsey by name, but if you think back to 2017, you may recall an old white pickup loaded with produce at various locations around Baxley, Ga. Whether you knew Kelsey personally, remember seeing him around town, or never heard of him, there is one thing for certain. Kelsey was a hard-working American and was as deserving of his constitutional rights as anyone.
On June 28, 2017, Kelsey Rayner was arrested for theft of services and for operating a business with no business license. Two days later, Kelsey was released from jail on a bond posted by a bail bond company.
After two weeks, at the request of Sheriff Mark Melton’s office, the bail bond company came off their bond for one of the two original charges, and Kelsey was arrested on July 15, 2017, on additional minor charges.
What was going through Kelsey Rayner’s mind as he was arrested, handcuffed, and escorted to the Appling County Detention Center? Maybe he questioned whether his arrest was justified. Perhaps he wondered how he’d make bail so he could go back to work. He may have even worried about his bills and responsibilities.
As Mr. Rayner’s cuffs were removed and he was placed in a cell, it’s doubtful he realized that none of his concerns would matter.
Because in eleven days, Kelsey Rayner would be dead.
Civil or Criminal Negligence
Per Ga Code 16-2-1:
“Criminal negligence is an act or failure to act which demonstrates a willful, wanton, or reckless disregard for the safety of others who might reasonably be expected to be injured thereby.”
Could the Appling County Sheriff’s employees have prevented Kelsey Rayner’s death? Did they take all reasonable precautions, or was Kelsey Rayner treated with reckless disregard?
Sheriff Mark Melton and multiple Appling County Corrections Officers have been named as defendants in a civil suit filed by Mr. Rayner’s family; Civil Action Number 2:19-CV-00048.
Did Sheriff Mark Melton have a hand in Kelsey Rayner’s death? Is it reasonable that he be included in this civil suit, and should criminal charges have also been made?
Civil Suit Timeline
Per information obtained from Civil Action Number 2:19-CV-00048:
Kelsey Rayner was arrested on July 15, 2017, and the following day, his medical intake revealed a fever of 99.9F.
By July 19th, Mr. Rayner complained of lower back and stomach pain, and his medical evaluation showed liver problems. On-site nurses evaluated his condition and ordered blood work to be taken on July 22nd.
Despite his obvious pain, Kelsey Rayner’s blood work was never performed.
On July 24th, Mr. Rayner was escorted to the courthouse, where he was seen hunched over and cradling his stomach. By this point, Kelsey Rayner was in such debilitating pain that he needed a deputy’s assistance to reach the judge’s bench.
One can only imagine the fear Kelsey Rayner must’ve felt.
For five days, he’d been in pain with no relief. The blood work that had been ordered for him was never performed. And now his sickness was so intense he needed assistance to walk.
Kelsey Rayner pleaded with the judge to release him so he could get medical attention.
“I been using the bathroom, passing blood and all that, too. They supposed to took me to the hospital after that, but they didn’t. I really need my body checked out, Mr. Pres. Whatever you can do to help me get out I’d appreciate it.”
Thankfully, the judge was merciful. Mr. Rayner was sentenced to 12 months that would be suspended on satisfactory completion of probation.
Kelsey Rayner had a bail bond in place for his other charges. Therefore, the judge’s order meant that Mr. Rayner was free to go. By the end of the day, Kelsey Rayner should’ve been released from jail and headed to the hospital for treatment.
But that didn’t happen.
Instead of releasing Mr. Rayner, the sheriff’s department returned Mr. Rayner to a jail cell.
By the next morning, Kelsey Rayner’s health began rapidly deteriorating. He barely ate and could be seen kneeling in pain with his head and elbows on the floor. Despite his obvious distress, the doctor refused to examine Mr. Rayner because his blood work wasn’t complete.
On the evening of July 25th, Kelsey Rayner experienced diarrhea so bad that he eventually dragged his bedding onto the floor to be closer to the toilet. By morning, his diarrhea had transitioned into repeated vomiting.
It’s horrific to think that Kelsey Rayner spent his last day on the cold hard floor of his cell, writhing in pain, and wondering why no one would help him. Imagine the helplessness he must’ve felt. Or the sheer desperation as jailer after jailer walked by his cell and did nothing.
Why wouldn’t anyone help him? Couldn’t they see his pain? Couldn’t they smell the stench of puke and hear the suffering in his cries?
Death was Kelsey Rayner’s only escape, and it wouldn’t be long now.
Evening came, and with it, supper. Through the pain, Kelsey Rayner tried to get his tray. He tried and failed, remaining on the hard floor, face-down, and in the fetal position as his chest rose and fell in rapid pants.
Throughout his entire ordeal, video surveillance inside Mr. Rayner’s cell transmitted every moment of his suffering to jailers in the control room, while other jailers walked by his cell and then left without offering the medical assistance they were legally required to provide.
Surprisingly, it was the inmates and not the jailers, who showed genuine concern and empathy for Kelsey Rayner.
Latasha Smith, a fellow inmate, repeatedly used her intercom to request help for Mr. Rayner, insisting that he was going to die, and they needed to take him to a hospital. Ms. Smith bothered the jailers so often they eventually disabled her intercom. Not to be deterred, she removed her bra and waved it in front of the camera to get the jailer’s attention again, only to be told to “shut up and get back in bed.”
By this point, Kelsey Rayner’s stomach was visibly distended, and he couldn’t push himself off the floor. After one last attempt, he rolled onto his back and stopped moving.
Minutes later, the jailer monitoring Mr. Rayner’s video feed noticed that he was no longer breathing. Appling County EMS assistance was requested, and CPR was performed.
Kelsey Jerome Rayner Sr. was pronounced dead on July 26, 2017, at 10:22pm.
1. 2018 Georgia Code, Title 42, Article 1
(A) Per 42-4-4(a), it is the sheriff’s duty to provide inmates with medical aid.
Sheriff Mark Melton has a legal duty to provide inmates with medical aid. He can’t pass that responsibility off. It is the duty he signed up for when he ran for sheriff in 2016.
According to Georgia law, any sheriff who fails to comply with this mandate shall be fined for contempt and is subject to removal from office.
(B) Per 42-4-1(a), in the eyes of the law, all sheriffs are jailers, which creates additional responsibility for the sheriff because jailers take an oath to treat prisoners humanely.
Any violation of that oath, spelled out in 42-4-5(a) as “guilty of inhumanity,” carries a steep penalty. Violation of that section is punishable by removal from office and one-to-three years in prison.
2. 2018 Georgia Code, Title 42, Article 2
According to 42-4-32(d), the sheriff shall ensure each inmate is observed daily, and a physician be called immediately if there are indications of serious injury, wound, or illness. Per state law, any person who violates this article shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.
3. 2018 Georgia Code, Title 42, Article 3
In this section, the “officer in charge” is defined as the sheriff, and states that he is required to provide sick inmates access to medical services.
4. U.S. Constitution, 8th Amendment
This constitutional amendment prevents the government from imposing unduly harsh penalties, and is a prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments.”
5. U.S. Constitution, 14th Amendment
This constitutional amendment prevents state governments from depriving any citizen of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.
Mr. Rayner’s suffering was ignored. His constitutional rights had been disregarded along with the expectation of common human decency. The Appling County Detention Center treated Kelsey Rayner like an animal, and he’d suffered tremendously because of it.
A hospital visit would have likely saved Mr. Rayner’s life. All it would have taken was one phone call from a jailor.
But are the jailers solely to blame for Kelsey Rayner’s death?
Over the last fifty years, psychological studies have been performed on the dynamics of the prison system. While the results varied, the one consistent finding was this—all else being equal, humans generally behave as they are expected to behave, especially when that expectation comes from a superior. This is one of the justifications for holding managers accountable for their employees’ mistakes. Managers decide how a company is run. By their actions and attitude, managers set the example, which is why they’re ultimately responsible for what happens under their watch.
As sheriff of Appling County, Mark Melton is the “manager” of the Appling County Detention Center. He is responsible for the facility’s legal operation and for protecting the inmates’ rights. It is Sheriff Melton’s job to ensure that policies are in place to protect those rights, and ensure his employees are trained to meet their constitutionally required responsibilities. As a leader, Sheriff Mark Melton should be aware that his actions, attitudes, and biases will trickle down to his employees.
That Kelsey Rayner pleaded for help and never received it speaks volumes to the attitude and leadership skills of Sheriff Mark Melton. And it begs the question of how Sheriff Melton views inmates under his care.
Kelsey Rayner had been convicted of a crime. He was a criminal. A thief. He had flaunted the law and conducted business without a license.
Mr. Rayner hadn’t earned compassion. He wasn’t worthy of anyone’s time or consideration.
Because he was a criminal.
And criminals were animals.
I hope everyone who reads this shakes their head in disgust. I pray they evaluate their hearts and try to imagine themselves in Kelsey Rayner’s shoes.
It is the heartless mentality of the above statements that allow tragedies like Mr. Rayner’s to occur. It is the hate that destroys families and strips sons and daughters from their parents.
Because here’s the thing, Kelsey Rayner was not an animal. He was a human being with feelings and dreams and a family that loved him. He’d made mistakes in life, as we all have, but nothing he’d done justified his horrifically painful death.
What went wrong? How could such an uncaring attitude be so widespread that not one jailer called for Mr. Rayner’s ambulance?
Sheriff Mark Melton has been in charge of the Appling County Detention Center since January 2017. It is his attitudes, policies, and leadership skills that guide these jailors.
Before Mark Melton became the sheriff, he worked for District Attorney Jackie Johnson as an investigator. If you’ll remember from our previous article, it was during that time that Mark Melton assisted Jackie Johnson in obtaining a P.O.S.T. waiver for Greg McMichael, the man currently on trial in Brunswick for the death of Ahmaud Arbery.
Mark Melton worked in the district attorney’s office for nine years, where it is their business to prosecute criminals. As an investigator for D.A. Jackie Johnson, Mark Melton’s mentality during that time would’ve been geared toward prosecution.
the institution and conducting of legal proceedings against someone in respect of a criminal charge.”
Prosecution is a line of work that could create a paranoid, hard-hearted, and aggressive person. If Mark Melton brought those traits from the D.A.’s office, it would likely lead to the same attitudes that allowed Kelsey Rayner to suffer and die alone in his jail cell.
Interestingly enough, Sheriff Mark Melton’s leadership style seemingly resembles that of his former boss, D.A. Jackie Johnson. Both have friendly public personas, but behind closed doors, they allegedly behave like bullies.
Sheriff Mark Melton’s office is bad enough that employees have admitted they were afraid to vote against Sheriff Melton for fear he’d find out and fire them. These same employees go to work each day, careful to keep their heads down and mouths shut. They’ve seen how nothing changed after Kelsey Rayner’s death. The jail continues to operate just as it had on July 26, 2017, with the same policies, procedures, and attitudes toward inmates. Nothing has been done to prevent future deaths. But they dare not complain. These employees have learned that no one speaks against Sheriff Melton—not if they value their job.
Retaliation. Intimidation. Coercion.
Are these the tactics used by Sheriff Mark Melton? Is this the style of leadership, and lack of humanity that led to Mr. Rayner’s death?
Another question that needs to be asked is why criminal charges haven’t been taken against the sheriff and jailers?
It’s a double standard.
When a mother leaves her sick child curled up on the floor and then refuses him medical aid, what does society think of her? When she sits and watches as her son pukes his guts out and moans in pain, aren't we outraged? Then when the authorities discover that her son is dead, what do we expect to happen?
In this scenario, almost everyone would agree that the mother was a monster. We’d be outraged and expect the police to investigate the child’s death. We’d expect a press release, notifying the public of what happened. And then we’d expect the mother to rot in prison.
How was Kelsey Rayner’s death any different than what was just described?
Had Mr. Rayner been released on July 24th, as the civil suit claims he should have been, he’d have gone to the hospital, and would likely be alive today.
But he wasn’t released.
Mr. Rayner was returned to the jail and was as helpless as a child. He was one-hundred percent dependant on the jailers for his food, water, and medical needs. And due to either ignorance, negligence or indifference, Mr. Rayner was ignored and left to die alone and in pain.
So, where was the justice for Kelsey Rayner? Where was the press release from the district attorney or sheriff’s office? Certainly, District Attorney Jackie Johnson was aware of the circumstances of Mr. Rayner’s death because she should’ve received a report from the GBI’s investigation.
District Attorney Jackie Johnson was recently accused of showing favoritism toward her previous employee, investigator Greg McMichael, in his involvement in the Ahmaud Arbery shooting. Is it possible that the Arbery case wasn’t the first time Jackie had stepped in to protect a former employee? Is it possible that a press release wasn’t issued and charges weren’t filed because Sheriff Melton was an old employee, political ally, and friend?
An open records request for the GBI’s investigation into the death of Kelsey Rayner has been filed. Hopefully, when that information is released, the Baxley Informer will answer some of these questions in a follow-up to this article.
Interesting side note:
Per Civil Action No. 2:19-CV-00048, Document 32, 43, and 43-1:
The originally scheduled Pre-Trial Order date for this lawsuit was August 28, 2020. However, the attorney representing Sheriff Mark Melton and his jailors filed a motion to have that date pushed back. Luckily for Sheriff Mark Melton, the Pre-Trial Order date was moved to November 26, 2020—three weeks AFTER the election.
What a happy coincidence.
Part Two of this series can be read here.
If you want to see the full text of these documents for yourself, they can be viewed at websites like CaseText.com, PacerMonitor.com, and possibly PeachCourt.com. A subscription to those websites may be required.