Verdict against 2 officers thrown out

Judge finds no evidence prison guards used excessive force on inmate

September 01, 2005|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

Saying that a jury's verdict was not based on the law, a federal judge in Baltimore tossed out a rare, $45,001 award yesterday against two correctional officers who were accused of using excessive force against a state inmate.

Jurors found in October that correctional officers Gary A. Knight and Robert Huff were personally liable for mistreating inmate Norman R. Willis at the Western Correctional Institution in Cresaptown in Allegany County two years earlier.

But yesterday, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett vacated the civil rights verdict, saying "it is quite evident that with respect to the Defendants Knight and Huff and the events of October 3, 2002, there is absolutely no evidence of any injury to support Willis' claim of excessive use of force." He added that "no reasonable jury" could have believed that Willis was injured based on the evidence at trial.

In October, jurors awarded Willis $1 in compensatory damages and $45,000 in punitive damages after he claimed he was assaulted and had his head slammed against the wall while he was handcuffed.

Willis, who was moved to the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, had claimed that the officers threatened and assaulted him and directed other inmates to fight him in retaliation for his written complaints against the officers.

Willis' attorney said yesterday he planned to appeal the judge's decision.

"I think that it was wrong for the judge to take the decision out of the hands of the jury," said attorney Tamal A. Banton. "What's shocking to the conscience of mankind is a decision for the jury, not the judge."

A lawyer for the state could not be reached to comment.

At a hearing in Baltimore in June, attorneys for the state had asked that the judge set aside the jury verdict, order a new trial or reduce the monetary damages that the federal jury awarded to Willis, then 37.

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