Correctional officers charged with assault Ex-inmate accuses 4 in case being sent to county grand jury

September 25, 1996|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

In an unusual move, the Howard County state's attorney's office yesterday charged four county correctional officers -- including a controversial shift commander -- with assault and battery in connection with alleged beatings of a former jail inmate.

The criminal charges, filed by former inmate Michael Alexander Saukas, will be sent to a county grand jury, which will determine within the next 30 days whether the officers should be prosecuted.

"It's very, very unusual. I'm surprised," Martin Geer, a University of Baltimore law professor who specializes in governmental liability in the treatment of prisoners, said of the move to press to charges against the officers.

If the grand jury approves prosecution, it would be the first time the county has defended employees charged with a crime since 1987, when a case was brought against the county Human Rights Commission for allegedly releasing confidential information, according to the county's Office of Law.

The charges stem from two incidents in which Saukas, of Ellicott City, claims that he was beaten while an inmate in the Howard County Detention Center. The state's attorney's office chose not to forward to the grand jury similar charges by Saukas in a third case.

Facing assault and battery charges are Officer Donald Pryor, Cpl. Alex Jacobs, Cpl. James Ford and Capt. Thomas Kimball -- a shift commander who in June was ordered back to the state's training academy after inquiries by The Sun revealed that he wasn't certified to hold his position.

Charges against a fifth officer, allegedly involved in the third case, were dropped.

In shifting to a county grand jury the decision whether to prosecute the officers, Howard prosecutors sidestepped the burden of having to make the decision themselves. "They're not saying a crime is committed. They're not making a judgment whether a crime has been committed," Geer said. "They may feel politically it's the safe way to go."

All of the officers remain on duty, said James N. Rollins, the jail director, who accuses the inmate of being nothing more than a troublemaker.

"Mr. Saukas was one of the two or three most disruptive inmates at this facility," Rollins said. "I think the charges are frivolous on his part. I believe that the officers acted properly, and after the grand jury's review all the charges will be dropped."

Rollins said he conducted his own investigation of the alleged assaults, finding that officers did nothing wrong.

Saukas, who left the Howard County Detention Center June 27 after serving 14 months for violating his probation, alleges in a complaint filed June 14 in county District Court that officers assaulted him on more than one occasion.

In one of the two incidents being sent to the grand jury for potential prosecution, Saukas claims officers used too much force to get him to go to his cell Feb. 24 -- while he was wearing handcuffs.

That day, he says, he wanted to see shift commander Kimball to complain about the theft of his headphones. So, he staged a protest by sitting on the floor of a cellblock on the way back to his cell from seeing a visitor, according to an interview last spring with Saukas and jail incident reports.

Officers ordered him to his cell but he refused, according to the inmate and jail reports. Kimball responded to the scene and also ordered Saukas to his cell. He again refused.

According to District Court charging documents, Saukas claims Kimball then punched him in the face twice, knocking him to the floor and breaking his glasses. Saukas alleges that Kimball and Jacobs continued to beat him -- while he was wearing handcuffs -- until they knocked him out, according to the charging documents.

Saukas also was accused of assault by Kimball in the same incident. But these charges were dropped after Saukas agreed not to sue the jail, the county or any of its employees as a result of the incident. However, he still decided to file the criminal charges.

The county state's attorney's office yesterday would not provide details of the second incident to be examined by the grand jury, beyond identifying it as an assault and battery case involving officers beating Saukas.

Saukas could not be reached for comment yesterday.

After reviewing Saukas' complaint, prosecutors requested an investigation by the Howard County Police Department, which issued a report of its findings to the state's attorney's office yesterday.

Prosecutors said they cannot release the police report nor comment further on the cases because they are active.

Geer, the law professor, said most assault cases pressed by inmates against correctional officers are not carried as far as the Saukas case.

Pub Date: 9/25/96

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