In the July 1999 issue of PLN we reported that four Nassau County jail guards were arrested in May 1999 for the January
1999 fatal beating of jail detainee Thomas Pizzuto. [See: "Detainee Beaten to Death at Nassau County Jail," PLN July `99].
Pizzuto, 38, was a recovering heroin addict who had been receiving daily methadone treatment when he started serving 90 days for a traffic violation. After guards refused him methadone, Pizzuto began yelling. Jail guards Patrick Regnier and Edward Velazquez went to Pizzuto's cell to quiet him. They entered the cell and beat Pizzuto while another guard, Ivano Bavaro, acted as a lookout.
Thomas Pizzuto was hospitalized three days later. He died 48 hours after that from internal bleeding, a lacerated spleen, and broken ribs. His face and body were covered with bruises. From his deathbed, Pizzuto was able to whisper to his father that two jail guards beat him up.
The investigation quickly focused on Regnier and Velazquez. On May 27, 1999 they were charged in a federal indictment, along with Bavaro, the lookout, and Corporal Joseph Bergin, who was charged as an accessory for drafting and signing a false incident report (stating that Pizzuto slipped and fell in the shower).
For nearly a year the four guards proclaimed their innocence. Then, in January 2000, Bavaro admitted to U.S. Attorneys that he acted as a lookout during the fatal beating and agreed to cop a plea and testify against his fellow guards.
Soon after Bavaro cracked the "blue wall of silence," Velazquez and Regnier decided to plead guilty. They did so in a bizarre federal court session on January 12, 2000--but only after a federal judge spent 45 minutes sparring with the two to get them to admit that they intentionally assaulted Pizzuto.,
More than 100 jail guards were on hand to show support as the two pleaded guilty. When the defendants arrived, fellow guards surrounded their car and formed a human wall to prevent reporters and photographers from having any contact with them.
The Pizzuto family was forced to walk through a crowd of grim-faced jail guards to get into the courthouse, prompting the victim's mother to sob loudly as she walked into the courtroom.
"I couldn't believe that this is the world we live in, that these people are backing up murderers," Ms. Pizzuto told New York Newsday.
Federal judge Jacob Mishler verbally sparred with the pair for nearly an hour, trying to get them to acknowledge their guilt. At one point, an exasperated Mishler said, "If the defendants aren't ready to support the charges, I cannot accept the plea." Mishler repeatedly asked the guards if they were indeed pleading guilty to the behavior detailed in the indictment. "You say you punched him in the face?" Mishler asked Regnier. But did he do all of the other things alleged in the indictment?
"I might have fell on Mr. Pizzuto," Regnier replied.
"You say you went down the tier to `do what you had to do, '" Mishler said, addressing Velazquez. But did he go with the intent to cause injury, as the indictment to which he was supposedly pleading guilty alleged?
There was a consultation between the defendants and their lawyers before Velazquez said yes, your honor.
Finally, after more pointed questioning by Mishler about their intention to hurt Pizzuto, the two guards admitted that they continually punched Pizzuto and that Regnier intentionally kneed him several times in his back, causing the severe bruising around his spleen which later resulted in Pizzuto's death.
Peter J. Neufeld, a lawyer for the Pizzuto family, said the family had mixed feelings about the guilty plea. "On the one hand, we are grateful that the federal prosecutors have moved forward aggressively," he said. "On the other hand, it is a tragedy that for more than a decade complaints of criminal misconduct among corrections officers at that jail went unheeded."
Corporal Bergin was convicted after a short trial a week after Regnier and Velazquez pleaded guilty. All three were sentenced by Judge Mishler on May 26, 2000. Bergin received 5 years and 10 months for his role as an accessory after the fact. According to testimony at his trial, Bergin told a fellow supervisor, "You want me to write a report to cover this up? I can write something for you guys." He then wrote the "slip and fall" shower report.
In sentencing Regnier and Velazquez, Judge Mishler had to determine whether the severity of their actions was equivalent of murder, manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter. Prosecutors argued that the beating was comparable to second-degree murder, punishable by 20- or 30-year prison terms under federal sentencing guidelines. Defense lawyers argued that the pair were responsible for nothing more than involuntary manslaughter, which could have led to a sentence as short as three and a half years.
Judge Mishler took the middle position, ruling that the beating was comparable to voluntary manslaughter. "At the time of the attack, Pizzuto was an inmate, unable to flee from his attackers and possessed of the knowledge that as loud as he screamed, no inmate or correction officer would come to his assistance," the judge wrote in his sentencing memorandum. Mishler gave Regnier and Velazquez 11 years and 3 months to spend on the other side of the bars in a federal prison.
Both sides said afterward that they were unsatisfied by the sentences. "I expected more," the victim's mother told the New York Times. "I expected them to get what they deserved--they killed my son."
But Dennis M. Lemke, a lawyer for Mr. Velazquez, said the sentences were too long. "We're not at all satisfied," he told the Times. "We'll file an appeal."
The final defendant, Mr. Bavaro, was sentenced in a separate hearing a month after his former fellow jail guards were sentenced.
Sources: New York Times, New York Newsday
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