Deliberations begin in inmate's lawsuit against prison officials

WCI correctional officers face abuse allegations

October 22, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Norman R. Willis had been a reliable inmate informant for prison officials who was transferred to Western Correctional Institution for his own protection - and then faced threats from officers, who either abused him or goaded other inmates to attack him, his attorney told jurors yesterday.

"Let's talk about the atmosphere at Western Correctional Institution," said the attorney, Tamal Banton, in his closing arguments in a civil rights trial in federal court in Baltimore involving Willis' abuse allegations against six officers. "We know that [an officer] had a T-shirt that said, `Housing Unit Four, House of Pain.'"

But David P. Kennedy, an assistant attorney general representing the officers, attacked Willis' credibility, calling his testimony "confused and contradicted," and characterized him as a scheming inmate looking to manipulate the prison system.

"How do you disprove something that didn't happen? That's the main problem in this case," Kennedy told jurors in his closing arguments. "There is almost no corroborating evidence [and] every reason in the world to be suspicious of Mr. Willis' credibility. ... I think getting these officers in big trouble was a big part of Mr. Willis' day."

The inmate's lawsuit against correctional officers at the medium-security prison near Cumberland is in the hands of eight jurors, who began deliberations yesterday afternoon. Willis, who is serving a 20-year robbery sentence at Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, was once held in the protective custody wing at WCI, where he alleges the mistreatment occurred from 2001 to early last year.

His allegations are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division. The FBI is also reviewing the death of Ifeanyi A. Iko, an inmate at WCI who died shortly after a violent confrontation with officers April 30. An Allegany County grand jury and an internal investigation found no wrongdoing in the death of Iko, who was also held in Unit Four.

n Willis' case, jurors must decide on four alleged incidents involving the officers - Gary Knight, Leah Youngblood, Brian Clise, Robert Huff, David Swanger and Steven Shaffer. Those allegations are that:

Two officers directed Willis to assault another inmate in a recreation yard in exchange for protection from a prison gang. Willis admits to carrying out the attack, in which he beat the inmate with another's crutch.

Kennedy told the jurors there was no evidence to back up Willis' testimony about it.

After a cellmate told an officer that he would attack Willis, the officer disregarded the comment and encouraged the assault. The next day, the inmate attacked Willis, put him in a headlock and choked him.

Kennedy said, "It may have just been a random fight - or it could've been set up by the inmates."

When Willis was escorted by officers to discuss a complaint with a lieutenant, the officers assaulted him while he was handcuffed from behind, and his head was slammed against a wall. Another inmate, Michael Graham, testified that the assault occurred, but several officers, including some of the defendants, rebutted that claim.

Two officers, while escorting Willis, punched and kicked him in the head. A prison psychology associate, Clarence Hawkins, testified that he saw injuries that Willis said he sustained from the alleged attack.

But several officers working that day testified that they didn't see any attack on Willis and that if they had, they would have been obligated to report it.

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