‘He danced his way into everyone’s heart’: Family wants justice after 19-year-old with special needs killed in Harris County Jail

Attorney Randall Kallinen says Fred Harris only weighed 98 pounds and his alleged attacker with violent record weighed 240 pounds

According to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Fred Harris was beaten and stabbed by Michael Ownby, 25, in a holding cell on the third floor of the 1200 Baker Street jail around 11:16 p.m. Friday.

HOUSTON – Civil rights attorney Randall Kallinen and the family of a 19-year-old man with special needs who was recently killed in the Harris County Jail cried out for justice Wednesday at a press conference held on the steps of the facility.

According to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Fred Harris was beaten and stabbed by Michael Ownby, 25, in a holding cell on the third floor of the 1200 Baker Street jail around 11:16 p.m. Friday.

RELATED: 19-year-old man dies while in Harris County Jail after fight with another inmate, HCSO confirms

It was not immediately known what led to the altercation between the two men, but according to court documents, Ownby stabbed Harris with “a weapon made from a sharpened eating utensil,” in addition to kicking Harris in the head and smashing his head against the concrete floor.

When detention officers made their way to the cell, they found Harris unresponsive and severely injured.

He was immediately taken to the jail medical unit for treatment, then transported to Ben Taub Hospital at about 11:51 p.m. for further care. Ownby was not hospitalized after the incident.

Harris was pronounced dead around 6:15 p.m. Sunday.

His family’s attorney says his death was preventable.

“This is one of the saddest cases I have come across,” said Kallinen. “Sheriff Gonzalez and the Harris County Commissioners Court have put inmates and staff at high risk due failure to address problems at the Harris County jail and this was bound to happen again.”

Harris was booked into the county jail on Oct. 11 on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon from the Houston Police Department. Ownby was booked into the county jail on Oct. 28 on charges of assault on a public servant, continuous violence against the family, and evading arrest from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

“In high school, he [Fred] was never in any trouble of any kind. He was in jail for the very first time and although they say it was aggravated assault, all it was is that he showed a knife to someone he was scared of,” Kallinen explained. “So although it sounds like he did something worse, if you look at the paperwork, all he did was show a knife to someone - that is what they allege he did. Based upon the facts that we know, he probably never would have been convicted. He has never been convicted of a crime in his life.”

Kallinen and Harris’ family say the two men should never have been in the same holding tank. They feel Harris never stood a chance in the “unprovoked” beating.

“Two days before he [Ownby] attacked Fred, he was charged with aggravated assault on a public servant because he attacked a guard. This was an extremely dangerous individual; proven by conviction, proven by attacking guards, had a knife,” Kallinen said. “And they were put together - 240 pounds with a knife and extremely violent and 98 pounds with special needs.”

Upon learning of her son’s incarceration, Dallas Harris rushed to the jail to personally explain his condition. The teen had an IQ of 62, and his mother felt he would not understand his circumstances.

“When I first learned my son was in jail, I came down immediately and told them this was not a place for him,” she explained. “I spoke with the deputy, we called the medical staff and I didn’t leave until I got some answers. When I left, they said my son would be OK and that they would handle this. We are here now, a couple of days later and this wasn’t handled.”

The grieving mother said everyone who knew her son is taking his death hard.

“Fred was a super loving kid. He had a way about himself, a poise about himself. He loved to dance. He wanted to fit in more than anything,” she said. “It feels unreal. If you guys met him, you would love him. He danced his way into everyone’s heart. Everybody loves Fred and we will get justice for Fred.”

Ownby has now been charged with aggravated assault.

Harris’ organs will be donated, according to his family.

View the full press conference below.

Civil rights attorney Randall Kallinen and the family of a 19-year-old man with special needs who was recently killed in the Harris County Jail cried out for justice Wednesday at a press conference held on the steps of the facility.

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Mother of two. Award-winning lover of digital storytelling, sparked by my fascination of being a fashionable gossip like my favorite "Willona Woods" character from "Good Times." On the serious side, president of the Houston Association of Black Journalists and dedicated community servant. Happy to share the news with you each and every day!