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Michigan Guard Who Procured Hit On Prisoner Must Pay $200,000 Damages

by Marvin Mentor

A Michigan federal jury returned verdicts of $75,000 in compensatory damages and $125,000 in punitive damages against a Michigan state prison guard who paid one prisoner six cigarettes to viciously pummel another.
Michigan prisoner Barton Allen, serving a life sentence for first degree murder, was attacked while sitting on the toilet in Building 7 (administrative segregation) at Riverside Correctional Facility in Ionia in October, 2001. Fellow prisoner DeShawn Fleming admitting smashing Allen's head against a broken urinal and further admitted that he assaulted Allen solely because Sergeant Dennis Baldwin paid Fleming six cigarettes to do so, (Baldwin had had a minor altercation with Allen six weeks earlier, and wanted to get even.) Allen, whose injuries required ten stitches and left a 3" scar, is still being treated for recurring headaches from the beating.

In a quintessential display of correctional justice," Fleming, who confessed to the assault and that he was hired by Baldwin, was administratively infracted and found guilty of the assault, while Baldwin, on the same evidence, was cleared by prison investigators of any wrongdoing. But Allen exposed the truth in his subsequent civil rights lawsuit against Baldwin.

Filing in pro per, Allen sued for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violation of his Eighth Amendment rights plus state law torts of assault and battery. [Allen's additional claim of Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process denial was dismissed in favor of the Eighth Amendment protection.]

Baldwin first moved to dismiss on grounds that Allen failed to exhaust administrative remedies through the third level. But Allen had submitted his third level appeal -- it's just that the recipient (alleges he) never received it. Since the record showed that Ionia staff also malevolently sidelined Allen's mail from the court (causing a failure-to-respond dismissal that was later reinstated), the court ruled that Allen's act of sending the third level appeal satisfied the available" administrative remedies requirement of 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), and the court would therefore not hold any defect in prison mail processing against Allen.
When the case moved to the trial phase, the court appointed LaRissa Hollingsworth of Grand Rapids, a newly admitted lawyer who had never conducted a trial. When testifying, Baldwin denied any role. He accused Allen and Fleming of staging the fight to make up a phony lawsuit. But the jury implicitly found that Baldwin lied, instead believing Allen, Fleming and a third prisoner, James Jett, who also had been propositioned by Baldwin to do his dirty work.

Allen and Hollingsworth were moved to tears by the jury's August, 2004 verdict. The fledgling lawyer just sat there and tried to look like I was used to winning." But she wasn't done fighting for her client. She said she will approach the court to prohibit Michigan from applying the award towards the cost of Allen's incarceration. After the three-day trial, Hollingsworth motioned the court for attorney fees and costs. Following 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d) (2), the court awarded $604 in costs (assessed against Baldwin) and $11,772 in fees (assessed against Allen's judgment).

In post-verdict motions, Baldwin claimed that the damages were excessive. His argument that Allen was just a violent con fell flat in light of the hopeless comparison with his own violent and cowardly act of soliciting assault and battery while being paid as a Michigan peace officer. As to the $125,000 punitive damages, Baldwin pled that it should be shocking to the Court's conscience" because it is two to three years times [Baldwin's] annual salary.

The court denied Baldwin's motions, observing that he never raised a constitutional challenge to the verdict, nor did he present any evidence of his financial means or net worth.

Baldwin will not be heard to argue that the award is excessive simply because it is more than he can pay." Moreover, the court opined, even if Baldwin had attacked the award constitutionally, the jury's award was well within the constitutional limits of a single digit ratio between compensatory and punitive damages.

No appeal was taken and the judgments were paid by the state of Michigan.
At the very least, it can be said that Baldwin set a new record for the cost of six cigarettes in state prison. See: Allen v. Baldwin, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Mich., S. Div.) Case No. 1:02 CV 294.

Other source: Grand Rapids Press.

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Related legal case

Allen v. Baldwin