PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Legal Newsline) – An inmate serving life for murder cannot sue over an alleged behind-bars attack because he is, by almost all legal standards, dead, the Rhode Island Supreme Court has ruled.

However, the court ruled May 8 that the inmate is entitled to a hearing on his amended complaint with the state's Superior Court alleging civil rights violations under state and federal law.

Rhode Island is one of only two states and territories - along with New York and the Virgin Islands - that continues to have a civil death statute on its books, which essentially means those sentenced to life have no rights.

Plaintiff Dana Gallop, serving two life sentences plus 20 years, alleged he was attacked by another inmate and that the assault was enabled by a prison officer. He claimed negligence on the part of defendants Adult Correctional Institutions, et al.

Gallop claimed the civil death statute was not applicable to his case and that it is invalid under the supremacy clause that gives him rights under the Constitution and federal law.

Rhode Island's civil death statute states, "'Every person imprisoned in the adult correctional institutions for life shall, with respect to all rights of property, to the bond of matrimony and to all civil rights and relations of any nature whatsoever, be deemed to be dead in all respects, as if his or her natural death had taken place at the time of conviction.”

The plaintiff alleged that on April 26, 2010, prior to his conviction and while he was being held at Adult Correctional Institutions, he was attacked by a fellow inmate. Gallop alleged he suffered lacerations and permanent scarring.

In his complaint, plaintiff alleged a correctional officer was told of the planned attack and that he abandoned his post for 18 minutes to allow it to happen.

Gallop complained that the trial court was wrong to rule that the civil death statue automatically meant dismissal, that federal rights trump the state statutes, and that the lower court judge erred in failing to address a motion to file an amended complaint.

The amended complaint named the correctional officer and alleged civil rights violations.

Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg, in her opinion, affirmed the dismissal of the case under the civil death statute, finding that the court has no authority to even consider its merits.

"The statute unambiguously declares that a person such as plaintiff, who is serving a life sentence, is deemed civilly dead and thus does not possess most commonly recognized civil rights," McKenna Goldberg wrote. 

But the justice also found that the trial court should have dealt with the filing of the amended motion, which included the name of the correctional officer and specific civil rights claims under federal law and the constitution.

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