Guards deny hitting inmate

Federal judge drops two more officers from lawsuit, leaving 6

Final arguments today

U.S. probes treatment at Western Correctional

October 21, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Eleven correctional officers took the stand yesterday in federal court in Baltimore to deny witnessing or committing any acts of abuse against a former inmate at the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland.

The testimony from the officers -- nine witnesses and two of the six remaining defendants -- helped lead to the dismissal of two officers from the case yesterday.

Since the trial began Monday, Assistant Attorney General David P. Kennedy has persuaded U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett to dismiss four of the 10 officers, mainly for lack of evidence. The officers were named in a lawsuit filed by the inmate, Norman R. Willis, who is now held at Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown on a robbery conviction.

Willis' civil rights lawsuit is a rare instance where an inmate's allegations of abuse and assault at the hands of officers are brought before a jury in federal court. Most inmate lawsuits are dismissed, legal experts say.

Willis' allegations are also part of a continuing probe by the U.S. Department of Justice into the treatment of inmates at the Western Maryland medium-security prison.

The FBI is also reviewing the death of inmate Ifeanyi A. Iko, who died shortly after a violent confrontation with officers at WCI on April 30. An earlier grand jury and internal investigation did not lead to any charges against the staff.

The officers' testimony yesterday appeared consistent, except for one discrepancy between part of a correctional officer's account and earlier testimony from a prison psychology associate.

On Monday, Clarence Hawkins, the psychology associate, testified that Officer Leah Youngblood told him on one of his regular visits with Willis that the inmate didn't want to see him. But Hawkins said he insisted on seeing Willis. When he finally met with him, Hawkins said, he saw bruises and swelling on his face, and Willis told him he had been assaulted by correctional officers.

Yesterday, Youngblood testified that she "never interfered" with Hawkins' visits with Willis and never told Hawkins that the inmate didn't want to see him on any occasion.

Much of the testimony from correctional staff yesterday centered on an alleged incident on Jan. 23 last year that apparently led to those injuries that Willis complained to Hawkins about.

In his lawsuit, Willis contends that two officers -- Youngblood and David Swanger -- kicked and punched him while they were moving him through Housing Unit 4, the segregation building at the prison where Willis was held in protective custody.

Willis said the attack was in retaliation for another lawsuit he had filed against WCI officers.

"I said [to Swanger], `Is the camera on?'" Willis told jurors on Monday. "He said, `Don't worry about the camera.'"

Willis testified that Swanger punched him in the head as he was walking through a door, and then Youngblood kneed him and kicked him in the face. He was then dragged into a property room where he was kneed and kicked again, he testified.

Yesterday, several officers who worked in the housing unit that day denied participating in or witnessing misconduct by officers.

Attorneys for both sides are expected to present their closing arguments this afternoon.

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