Man wants cinnamon prank lawsuit in state court

By Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Attorneys for a mentally disabled man suing a Mississippi city over a prank called the cinnamon challenge and other alleged abuses want his lawsuit sent back to a state court.

Denareus Cortez Martin’s family sued the city of Tutwiler after a video surfaced purportedly showing police officers and city clerks encouraging him to eat a mouthful of cinnamon while he was doing community service on Feb. 4. The video shows a woman pouring cinnamon into Martin’s mouth and him coughing while others laughed. Martin was 18 at the time.

The cinnamon challenge is a prank in which people try to swallow the spice without water. It dries the mouth and usually causes them to cough and spit. There are thousands of videos online showing people trying the challenge.

In this case, Martin held the cinnamon in his mouth for a few seconds before he coughed out a plume of the spice and ran to a water fountain and then a restroom, apparently gagging. The video was taken at city hall by one of the officers and posted on YouTube, though it has since been taken down.

The police chief, two officers and two city clerks were fired over the video.

Martin’s family sued four of them on May 21 in Tallahatchie County Circuit Court. The lawsuit claimed Martin was subjected to other abuses, including being shocked with a stun gun, forced to box with one of the officers and teased about his mental disability. Martin was with the city employees because he was ordered to perform community service on a misdemeanor charge of failing to comply with an officer, court records said.

The city filed court documents to have the case moved to federal court. Martin’s lawyer filed a motion this week to have it sent back to state court, saying it was improperly removed because not all parties joined in the motion, said Ellis Pittman, whose law firm represents Martin.

Pittman said he wants the case to remain in state court because the jury would be pulled from one county instead of the much larger federal district within the state.

“We want a jury from Tallahatchie County. We think that’s more of a jury of their peers,” Pittman said.

Terry Tyler, who was the police chief, was fired over the video but he was not named in the lawsuit. Martin signed a sworn statement saying the police chief assisted him by directing him to water, but Pittman said that Tyler wasn’t named in the lawsuit because he thinks it’s a good legal strategy.

Pittman said he wants take a deposition with Tyler about the city’s lack of procedures and policies for employees.

“They didn’t even have an employee handbook,” Pittman said.

Tyler is appealing his firing.

Tutwiler attorney Renetha Latrice Frieson said that appeal is pending in Tallahatchie County Circuit Court. She wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit.

Tyler has said that he walked into the room at Tutwiler City Hall after the prank was already happening and that he was trying to help.

Martin’s attorney has said it doesn’t appear that Tyler was present for the other alleged abuses.

Tallahatchie County Sheriff William Brewer has said that he reported the matter to the FBI and that a joint investigation would take place.

Tutwiler is small town of about 1,300 people in Tallahatchie County in the Mississippi Delta. The area is known mostly for farming and several prisons and jails that employ many of its residents.