Inmate death suspect indicted, mental eval ordered

Judge Jim Kitchens points to where Cameron Henderson needs to go as Henderson entered the courtroom for his arraignment Thursday.
Staff Writer

A mental evaluation is ordered for a 20-year-old West Point man indicted for first-degree murder for strangling a fellow inmate in the Clay County Jail three weeks ago.

Cameron Henderson said little during his arraignment Thursday in Clay County Circuit Court as Judge Jim Kitchens and assistant District Attorney Scott Rogillio went over the indictment, which was returned Wednesday by the Clay County Grand Jury. Henderson’s court-appointed attorney, Jay Hurdle, of Starkville, entered a not-guilty plea on his client’s behalf.

Henderson is accused of using a two-foot-long telephone cord to strangle 54-year-old Dale O’Neal just before 8 a.m. on March 15.

The two had shared a misdemeanor cell in the jail for two days and O’Neal was scheduled to be released later that day after having served out his city and county sentences.

Hurdle and Rogillio agreed to the mental exam and Kitchens signed off on it. The judge denied any bond, as is standard procedure in cases where mental exams are ordered. Kitchens said he would reconsider the question once the state psychiatrists complete their evaluation.

Investigators have not discussed a motive for the slaying or said in detail what might have happened. An autopsy ruled O’Neal died of strangulation and experts have said he could not have used the cord to strangle himself because he would have passed out first.

Both men had been in jail on previous occasions and had no violent histories. They both had drug and alcohol issues in their records and Henderson also has had mental health concerns, including efforts by his family to have him committed through Chancery Court.

His family, which was in the courtroom Thursday, is cooperating in getting and turning over his medical history, prescriptions and records from treatments at Baptist Willowbrook in Columbus and Alliance Health in Meridian.

Although he acknowledged the timetable was “not very realistic,” Kitchens ordered discovery be requested by May 20, pre-trial motions filed by June 24, and a plea agreement reached by July 8. He set a July 22 trial date.

Such scheduling orders are standard procedure and seldom hold true.

Kitchens also authorized Hurdle and prosecutors to obtain Henderson’s records from West Point schools as part of the psychological exam.

“Everything that can be provided will be helpful to the state psychologists,” Kitchens said.

O’Neal had been in jail since March 8 for trespassing and failing to appear in court on older charges.

Henderson was booked at 2:30 p.m. March 13 by West Point Police on misdemeanor charges of shoplifting and disturbing the peace.

Jailers had been in contact with both inmates throughout the night and breakfast trays had been delivered earlier that morning with no indication of trouble. Jailers can monitor hallways via surveillance cameras but can’t see inside cells.

Other inmates started yelling, alerting jailers to something happening in the misdemeanor cell blocks, which houses about 40 inmates. When they reached the cell, they found O’Neal unresponsive. The cord, which attached a receiver to the small phone in each cell used by inmates to make calls using credits on their canteen account, was in the cell.

O’Neal’s family has threatened legal action, suggesting the county may have failed to follow policy, contributing to the death. Their attorney, Carlos Moore, has suggested it might have been racially motivated since O’Neal was black and Henderson is white.