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Jury Awards $201,501 to Raped Indiana Prisoner

By John Emry

Graylon Bell was placed in the Plainfield Correctional Facility operated by the Indiana Department of Correction in January of 1994. Shortly after, another prisoner, Grady Vaxter, started hitting on Bell hinting Vaxter was interested in Bell and wanting Bell to cooperate. Bell did what he could to stay away from Vaxter and started complaining to anyone he could about Vaxter. For his efforts, Bell was told to "just say no" and then moved to a cell even closer to Vaxter during that summer. Finally and incredibly on August 20, 1994, they were made cellmates. Threatened with detention if he did not move in with Vaxter, Bell moved but loudly complained to several guards and his counselor. Calls were made but his entreaties were rejected and nothing was done.

On August 23, 1994, Vaxter raped Bell early in the morning. Afraid and not knowing who to tell, Bell waited until after breakfast to seek help when he could get out of the cell and away from Vaxter. The key defendants did not believe him and Bell ended up in detention. In detention he kept complaining about being raped until another guard ordered Bell sent to the hospital for a rape examination.

The examining physician tesified that the evidence was consistent with rape but could not say whether Bell was raped or not. The rape kit examination was inconclusive. It was Bell's word against a witness who did not testify. When the story finally came out in the Indianapolis Star newspaper in January of 1995 that Bell was alleging he was raped and naming names, the cover-up started. The guards who testified they warned defendants were subjected to harassment. Another guard who saw Bell when he came back from the hospital also caught flack as did the counselor who testified regarding the "just say no" remark.

Defendants contended in the alternative that Bell consented, owed Vaxter a debt, and Vaxter, a dialysis patient, was too sick to have done it and it never happened. Along the way, the defendants admitted that Bell had complained repeatedly about Vaxter but only that he was dirty and smelly. This story just did not ring true and a number of contradictory statements seemed to be the undoing of defendants. By the time they were done, the jury apparently preferred to believe Bell.

Prior to the trial, defendants had enrolled the help of a forensic psychologist from Michigan who was going to testify that Bell was a self-mutilator whose prior behavior suggested that he hurt himself to get away from Vaxter although it was not clear why he would do that in his particular situation. The real purpose of the "expert" testimony appeared to be to lead the jury to the conclusion that Bell hurt himself to stay out of detention and was not raped at all.

For a number of reasons including a lack of foundation under Daubert v Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 US 579, 125 LE 2d 469, 113 S.Ct 2786 (1993), the evidence was excluded. Conflicting testimony (allegedly) and this exclusion of the expert testimony are the only two practical bases for the pending motion for a new trial. Neither is likely to succeed based on the record. The petition for attorney fees is still pendingwith the ruling on the motion for a new trial.

The case is remarkable in that prison lawsuits rarely do well in courts in Indiana, do not end with large amounts for damages (often merely nominal), and never result in punitive damages. The jury apparently rejected the suggestion that Bell could have gone into protective custody but elected not to take it. The case is remarkable as well because eight jurors not only agreed that all but one of the defendants were liable for listening to but not heeding the warnings, but imposed punitive damages against each remaining defendant (totalling $146,500). This is even more significant since Bell's counsel only discussed how to figure out compensatory damages and did not discuss punitive damages in closing at all. After awarding $55,001 in compensatory damages, the jury all on its own after six hours of deliberations followed the court's instructions and carefully imposed punitives on each defendant according to their view of these defendants' outrageous actions. The amounts awarded were clearly within the guidelines imposed by the court recently for punitives.

One of the defendants has quit, one is the new superintendent of programs and one is retiring as superintendent of a nearby facility. The rest are apparently still working, but perhaps with a little more willingness to listen if someone complains. It is quite likely that defendants will pursue an appeal if a new trial is not granted. See: Bell v. Phemster.

[John Emry is the Indiana attorney who successfully represented Bell at trial.]

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Related legal case

Bell v. Phemster