A federal judge in Indianapolis has dismissed a suit against Vanderburgh County that claimed county officials were responsible for a 2005 triple murder-suicide by an inmate on work release.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker issued a 13-page order dismissing the federal complaint Christine Sandage, et al. v. Board of Commissioners of Vanderburgh County, Indiana, et al. The suit stems from the deaths of Sheena Sandage-Shofner, Alfonzo Small, and Tara Jenkins, who were fatally shot almost three years ago by Travis Moore. He was serving a four-year sentence for a robbery conviction and was on work release, which allowed him to leave the correctional center periodically under supervision.
A month before her death, Sandage-Shofner warned the county sheriff’s department by telephone that Moore had been harassing her at times he was supposed to be at work. The county did not revoke Moore’s work release privileges, and after the murders and his suicide, the families of Sandage-Shofner and Small sued the county for contributing to their deaths.
Filing a state and a federal suit in April 2007, the families sought unspecified damages on grounds that the defendants’ failure to revoke Moore’s work release “created a danger… that would not otherwise have existed.”
Judge Barker disagreed, finding that the victims had no constitutional right to police protection from violent crimes in this case and, if they had, the defendants’ failure to respond to complaints and remove Moore from work release did not result in a constitutional injury.
She relied on a recent 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in King v. East St. Louis School District 189, 496 F.3d 812 (7th Cir. 2007), which set out a three-part balancing test to prove whether a state-created danger existed. Plaintiffs fell short of complying with that standard, the judge wrote, and granted a motion to dismiss the claims.
None of the parties disputed that the county was acting according to state law when they determined Moore could be put on work release, and Judge Barker declined to exercise jurisdiction on those claims.
Now, those same issues will play out in Vanderburgh Circuit Court on the negligence claims. The parties had held off on the trial court case while the federal suit was pending.