Inmate wins suit against Maryland prison officers

October 23, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

In a rare public rebuke, a federal jury in Baltimore found yesterday that two Western Maryland correctional officers violated an inmate's constitutional rights by assaulting him and slamming his head against the wall while he was handcuffed two years ago, and awarded him $45,001.

The eight jurors gave the inmate, Norman R. Willis, 37, one dollar in compensatory damages and the rest in punitive damages for the federal civil rights lawsuit he brought against officers at Western Correctional Institution in Cresaptown in Allegany County.

The award for Willis comes as federal authorities are investigating the medium-security prison near Cumberland. The U.S. Justice Department is probing inmate claims of abuse by officers, and the FBI is investigating an inmate death in April that involved WCI officers.

"This should send a message that if this stuff is going on, the [Division of Correction] needs to get on top of it," said Stephen Z. Meehan, one of three attorneys from the Prison Rights Information System of Maryland, a legal group that represented Willis.

Willis, who was present during the trial, was unavailable for comment. He is serving a 20-year sentence for armed robbery at the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.

David P. Kennedy, an assistant attorney general who defended the officers, said he was "absolutely 100 percent certain" that the state will appeal the jury's decision. The two officers, Gary A. Knight and Robert Huff, are personally liable, but Kennedy said his office will recommend to the state Board of Public Works that the state pay the award.

"We were very disappointed that the jury found any defendants liable on any of the [four] counts," Kennedy said. He said that the verdict was a sign from jurors that they don't necessarily trust testimony from government witnesses and said "inmates are going to be emboldened to pursue these types of cases."

The officers, through Kennedy, declined to comment. Knight has been on leave from the prison since November 2002 because of a job-related injury, he said in court. Huff testified that he still works at WCI as an officer.

A spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which oversees the Division of Correction, said in a statement that he could not discuss Willis' allegations or the officers because an "appeal may be pending."

"I want to make it clear, on behalf of Secretary Mary Ann Saar, that this administration does not tolerate abuse of inmates or detainees," Mark Vernarelli wrote in an e-mail. "The vast majority of correctional officers do an outstanding job, and hold themselves to the highest standards. Our officers are trained in methods of custody and supervision that do not rely on show-of-force or intimidation tactics."

The finding by the jury is not common in Maryland, according to legal experts and a review of legal cases.

"This is a very important ruling for no other reason than that it is so rare," said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University in Washington who specializes in inmate issues. "It is extremely rare for these cases to go to verdict, and even more rare for a convict to prevail. One takes immediate note when one hears about these cases.

"One has to look at the entire prison and certainly the management of the prison," Turley said. "These allegations suggest more than a rogue correctional guard."

The jury began deliberations Thursday afternoon and continued for more than five hours yesterday. The jurors - five men and three women - appeared to pay close attention throughout the week, taking notes during testimony from officers, inmates, prison staff and a former inmate.

The trial began Monday with 10 officers named as defendants. Another nine officers testified as witnesses, and all denied participating or witnessing any assault on Willis.

Kennedy successfully argued before U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett that four officers be dismissed from the case for lack of evidence. He also succeeded in whittling down the number of counts, or allegations, from nine to four in legal arguments before the judge.

Willis had claimed that officers threatened and assaulted him, or directed other inmates to fight him, in retaliation for his written complaints against the officers.

The jurors sided with four officers on three allegations. In those allegations, Willis claimed that he had been directed to assault another inmate in exchange for protection from a prison gang; that an officer had encouraged another inmate to attack Willis; and that two officers punched and kicked him in the head while he was being escorted through Housing Unit Four, the segregation area of the prison.

The jurors sided with Willis on his allegation that his head was slammed against the wall while two officers, Knight and Huff, were escorting him to discuss a complaint with a lieutenant against an officer.

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