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Corcoran Show Trial Ends with Acquittals

Corcoran Show Trial Ends With Acquittals

The saga of Corcoran's infamous SHU shootings ended June 8, 2000 when a jury acquitted eight California prison guards of federal charges that they entertained themselves by staging gladiator-style fights among prisoners from rival gangs.

Between 1989 and 1994 seven unarmed prisoners were fatally shot by guards for fighting while confined in tiny concrete exercise yards of Corcoran's Security Housing Unit (SHU). The killings were described to PLN by a Corcoran prisoner like "shooting fish in a barrel."

Federal charges against the eight Corcoran guards were brought when two of their colleagues blew the whistle to FBI officials after SHU prisoner Preston Tate was fatally shot on April 2, 1994.

The eight were indicted in February 1998 for conspiracy and for violating the civil rights of SHU prisoners by failing to keep them safe from harm. Combing through prison reports, the prosecutors alleged that 84 fights took place during the defendants' shift during one five and a half month period--300% more than in other Corcoran SHU units or on other shifts.

The prosecution focused on two of the fights. Corcoran Sgt. Truman Jennings and guards Timothy Dickerson, Michael Gibson and Raul Taverez were charged for staging a tag-team fight among three SHU prisoners on February 23, 1994.

Lt. Douglas Martin, Sgt. John Vaughn and guards Jerry Arvizu and Christopher Bethea were indicted for setting up the brawl that ended with Tate's death. It was a round from Bethea's 9mm rifle that struck Preston Tate in the head and killed him. Bethea said he was shooting to wound the other prisoner who was fighting with Tate.

SHU prisoner Anthony James, a key prosecution witness, testified that Bethea bragged moments before the fight broke out that it was "duck hunting season."

Preston Tate's death led to an $825,000 settlement after his family filed a wrongful death suit in civil court. Media attention surrounding the Tate shooting prompted the California department of Corrections (CDC) to revise its policy on the use of deadly force. Besides the seven fatally shot, dozens of Corcoran SHU prisoners suffered non-fatal gunshot wounds between 1989 and 1994. Since the CDC revised its shooting policy not one Corcoran prisoner has been shot.

Defense lawyers successfully deployed the "Nuremberg defense," maintaining throughout the nine week trial that their clients did not set up any fights and were merely doing their jobs. They blamed the violence on an ill-conceived "integrated yard" policy, mandated by senior CDC officials, designed to force prisoners from rival gangs to exercise together.

Some observers believe the prosecution lost the case before the trial began when the seven man and five woman jury was impaneled. One male juror had applied to become a prison guard. The late husband of a female juror had been a Sergeant at a CDC prison. Another female juror worked for the Madera County jail system. And another is a Superior Court clerk.

Defense attorney Wayne Ordos told the Sacramento Bee that he was "ecstatic" with the makeup of the jury. Ordos, a former federal prosecutor, said that if he were prosecuting the case he would have eliminated several of the jurors with challenges. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jon Conklin, who headed up the four-member prosecution team, would not comment about the jury makeup.

The jury deliberated for less than six hours. As the verdicts were read by U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Ishii, some relatives of the guards broke into uncontrollable sobs. One defense attorney slammed his fist down on the table while another shouted, "All right!"

"They were able to figure out in five hours what the federal government couldn't figure out in six years," said Christopher Bethea, the guard who fatally shot Preston Tate.

Juror Dorene Delt, an employee of the Madera County Jail, summed up the sentiments of her fellow jurors when she said the case lacked substance from the start.

"You've got to have some meat in the soup," Delt told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We could see from the beginning that there was no substance."

Another juror, Charlene Hefner, who is married to a retired California prison guard, said the government's case was "shallow."

Some of the defendants wept with relief and wiped tears from their eyes as the verdict was read. Later, they appeared giddy as they embraced jurors in bear hugs. At least one juror had his photo taken with the defendants, and another collected the guards' autographs.

One of the defendants, Jerry Arvizu, said a "cloud was lifted" by the verdict. But he expressed uncertainty about returning to the prison and was worried about retaliation from the prisoners. He swore he would never work again inside a security housing unit.

Guard Michael Gibson said he was "relieved and happy" but ashamed that the government pressed such a flimsy case.

"To be honest, I don't think I could ever pull a trigger for the Department of Corrections again," he said when asked about his future. "Look at what happens for doing our jobs."

None of the guards still works at Corcoran. Six transferred to other CDC posts and two have retired. The whistleblowers, former Lt. Steve Riggs and guard Richard Caruso, both went on disability leave for stress-related problems. The pair found it impossible to work in any California prison because other guards ostracized them for breaking the CDC "code of silence."

Carl Feller, the U.S. Attorney in Fresno, said he would accept the verdict, and continue to prosecute guard brutality cases in the prison system. In November 1999, four Corcoran guards were acquitted of setting up the rape of a prisoner, placing him in the cell of the notoriously violent "booty bandit" in retaliation for the prisoner's attack on a female guard.

Prosecutors in both cases were faced with the daunting task of trying to convict prison guards in California's Central Valley. Jurors in the valley tend to be sympathetic to guards because prisons provide much of the region's non-farm employment, as many as 10,000 jobs.

The state's powerful prison guard union saturated the Fresno media market with TV and radio commercials before and during both trials, describing prisoners as "violent predators" and dubbing Corcoran as the "toughest beat in the state."

It is difficult not to compare the Corcoran trials to sham trials held in the deep South during an era of Jim Crow justice when it was nearly impossible to convict a white man of killing a black. It's all in the makeup of the jury. It's in a culture of oppression that institutionalizes the precept that members of the oppressed group are sub-humans who need to be kept in their place. It's the acceptance of the notion that, unfortunately, homicidal violence is often necessary to keep the sub-humans in line.

The seven bullet-riddled dead and countless wounded Corcoran prisoners are, after all, "violent predators" who threatened those brave souls who walk the "toughest beat in the state."

Sources: Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Chronicle, The Associated Press.

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