A suspect in a 2016 Logan County homicide wants to avoid having his dreadlocks sheared as part of a recently-instituted policy in the state prison where he is lodged.
Demetrius Roberson, 26, is an inmate at Green River Correctional Complex in Muhlenberg County, where he is serving a 10-year sentence in a 2014 robbery case.
He is awaiting trial next year in Logan Circuit Court in the death of Lexus Bell, 21, who was shot Aug. 21, 2016, in her home at Robinwood Apartments in Russellville.
Roberson is charged with murder, attempted murder, first-degree robbery and nine counts of first-degree wanton endangerment in the case, which has seen four other co-defendants enter guilty pleas.
Attorneys Cheri Riedel and Samuel Cox, Roberson’s defense team in the murder case from the state Department of Public Advocacy, filed a motion June 23 to prohibit the cutting of Roberson’s dreadlocks before the conclusion of his trial, which is set for Jan. 11.
The attorneys said in the motion that Green River adopted a policy in April that requires an inmate to have his hair cut or head shaved if the inmate’s head is not “searchable.”
Prison staff explained to Roberson’s attorneys that an inmate’s hair must be able to have a comb run through it, and an inmate is given an hour before a search to make their hair searchable, according to the motion.
Riedel and Cox argue that Roberson’s religious preference is noted in Kentucky Department of Corrections records as Rastafarian, and the prison cannot compel Roberson to cut his hair in violation of his religion, which regards dreadlocks as a symbol of strength and holds that certain Bible verses command practitioners to not cut their hair.
“(Roberson) argues that GRCC cannot compel him to cut his dreadlocks because it is a tenet of his religion and protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act,” Riedel and Cox said, citing a federal law that forbids governments from imposing a substantial burden on a confined person’s religious exercises.
Cutting Roberson’s dreadlocks would also subject him to prejudice at his trial, his attorneys said, saying jurors may form a negative opinion of Roberson because of his unwilling change in hairstyle.
“If, during the trial, photos of (Roberson) at the time of his arrest are shown to the jury, and the members of the jury are then comparing those photos to the person sitting before them in the courtroom, there is a significant danger that the members of the jury might believe that defendant willingly, and of his own accord, changed his appearance as some attempt to conceal his identity,” the motion said.
Roberson’s attorneys also said the prison’s policy disproportionately affects Black inmates and violates their right to equal protection “due to the biological nature of African-American hair,” and they argued that it would not be necessary to run a comb through an inmate’s dreadlocks to search for contraband.
“An inmate with dreadlocks can assure GRCC staff that he has not brought in contraband in his hair by merely shaking his head and dreadlocks vigorously,” Riedel and Cox said. “It is also important to note that defendant has never been suspected or accused of bringing in any contraband to GRCC to date, in his hair or otherwise.”
Courts have occasionally had to tangle with the legality of dreadlocks in a jail setting.
A Pennsylvania inmate awaiting trial in a shooting case was released in April from solitary confinement after more than a year when he refused to cut his dreadlocks, which violated the policy of the jail where he has been held.
The jail adopted a religious exception to its dreadlocks ban after the inmate, a member of the Rastafarian faith, filed a federal lawsuit, according to reports.
Online Kentucky Court of Justice records show no indication that the office of Logan County Commonwealth’s Attorney Neil Kerr has filed a response to the motion from Roberson’s defense team.
A pretrial conference has been set for Sept. 4.
– Follow courts reporter Justin Story on Twitter @jstorydailynews or visit bgdailynews.com.