Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Court upholds criminal verdict against correction officers who assaulted inmate

It is illegal for law enforcement to beat up inmates, but they are not frequently prosecuted for it. But in this case, the Southern District of New York went after Fishkill Correctional Facility officers for conspiracy to violate the inmate's civil rights. The jury found against the officers, and the Court of Appeals upholds the verdict. 

The case is United States v. Scott, issued on November 5. Viewing the evidence from the inmate's perspective, the jury was able to find that, following a dispute over whether the inmate should be taken to the Forensic Diagnostic Unit, a CO punched inmate Moore in the chest. Someone else grabbed him from behind and pulled him to the ground, where other CO's held him down and beat him up for two to four minutes with his face to the ground. Someone pulled the inmate's hair out and kneed him in the abdomen. While the inmate did not fight back, a CO placed him in a leg hold to prevent him from defending himself. Someone kicked him in the eye, and he was kicked while he was in handcuffs. A supervisory officer was present but did not order the CO's to stop the attack. The inmate suffered serious physical injuries and spent time in two different hospitals. There was also evidence of a cover-up among the defendant officers, who altered their reports of the incident.

The Court of Appeals (Sullivan, Kearse and Park) affirms the jury's verdict that the officers had conspired to assault the inmate for no good reason. The defendants said there could not have been any conspiracy to violate the inmate's rights because the situation unfolded too rapidly for the to reach an agreement. The Court is not buying this, holding that there need not be "an extended period of premeditation or a distinct verbal agreement prior to the impetus of the assault. . . . While not every group beating is per se a conspiracy, the record here demonstrates that Defendants entered into a tacit agreement to violate Moore's civil rights." Here is the analysis (Santiago, Scott, and Lowery are the CO's):

Although Morris’s initial punch may have been spontaneous, the evidence at trial revealed that the other officers acted in concert and purposefully joined the assault. Santiago quickly grabbed Moore from behind to force him to the ground. Scott then ordered two probationary officers removed from the area, which the jury could reasonably infer reflected an approval of what followed and a conscious intent to reduce the number of witnesses as it continued. Scott and Lowery worked together to restrain Moore, with Scott pulling Moore’s arm behind his back and handcuffing his right wrist while Lowery, at Scott’s command, applied a figure- four leg hold that restricted Moore’s ability to protect himself. Santiago, leveraging the restraint provided by Lowery and Scott, continued to physically beat Moore. Although no one action on its own is necessarily sufficient, the evidence here demonstrates that the group consciously colluded for at least a couple minutes to deprive Moore of his civil rights and that Scott used her supervisory authority to facilitate that assault.

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