October 25, 2020

Lawsuit sparked by political shenanigans in Cochran-McDaniel race continue through courts years after race

Six years after a contentious U.S. Senate race that divided Mississippi Republicans and more than a year after the death of the incumbent who won, a civil lawsuit connected to the case is still winding through the courts.

A federal appeals court ruled last week that a Madison police officer did not violate a man’s constitutional rights when she sought search warrants to investigate whether he was part of a conspiracy to photograph the ailing wife of longtime U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran to use in a video criticizing Cochran.

The dispute is in a lawsuit filed by the widow and sons of attorney Mark Mayfield of Madison County, whose 2014 death was ruled a suicide.

The 2017 lawsuit says Mayfield took his own life under pressure as he was facing a felony charge of conspiracy to exploit a vulnerable adult. The lawsuit claims that several people were part of a network illegally retaliating against Mayfield for his political activity. A federal district judge dismissed some defendants in 2018 and 2019.

Mayfield was prominent in the Mississippi tea party movement. During Mississippi’s 2014 U.S. Senate race, he supported Chris McDaniel as the state lawmaker ended up losing to Cochran the Republican primary.

An opponent of Cochran took an unauthorized photograph of the senator’s wife, who had dementia and was living in the same Madison nursing home as Mayfield’s mother. The image of Rose Cochran was briefly posted online to try to draw attention to allegations that Thad Cochran was having an affair while his wife was incapacitated. The senator’s campaign said he was not involved in an improper relationship.

Court records say Mayfield refused to photograph Rose Cochran, but he showed someone where to find her room. Another person took video of her, and a still image from that video was used online.

Mayfield died while the charge against him was pending. A blogger later pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge related to the photo, and he spent several months in jail.

One of the remaining defendants in the Mayfield family’s civil lawsuit is Vickie Currie, who was the lead investigator into the violation of Rose Cochran’s privacy. Currie was one of the officers who submitted sworn statements to a city judge before the judge issued search warrants for Mayfield’s law office and the Mayfield family home.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said last week that Currie did not violate Mayfield’s constitutional right against search and seizure when she sought the search warrants. Arguments centered on the issue of “qualified immunity,” which shields police officers from liability unless a reasonable official would have understood that what he or she was doing would violate a constitutional right.

One of the appeals court judges, Don R. Willette, wrote that “because the Mayfields have failed to show a constitutional violation, let alone a clearly established one, Officer Currie cannot be liable.”

The appeals court instructed a district court judge to review another aspect of the Mayfields’ complaint about Currie — whether she omitted some information that might have cleared Mayfield of blame as she sought the search warrants.

Rose Cochran died in December 2014. Thad Cochran married a longtime aide, Kay Webber, in May 2015, and he retired from the Senate in 2018 amid concerns about his own health. He died in May 2019.

Documents filed in September in the federal district court in Jackson show that the attorneys representing the Mayfield family intend to interview several people under oath to gather more information for their lawsuit.

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994.