by Gary Hunter
Walter "Steve" Kuntz was beaten to death by jailers in Wilson County, Tennessee. His murder led to a federal investigation, the indictment of nine jailers, six guilty pleas and two convictions.
On January 12, 2003, Kuntz was arrested for driving under the influence, driving with a revoked license and leaving the scene of an accident. Eight hours later he was taken from the Wilson County jail to the hospital, brain dead and with three broken ribs and a damaged scrotum. The medical examiner officially pronounced Kuntz dead two days later -- the victim of homicide.
For over 18 months from 2001 to 2003, second shift jail supervisor Patrick Marlowe and his henchmen were accused of enforcing vigilante justice on defenseless prisoners. The first alert came in early February 2002 when Vincent Gooch filed a complaint stating he had been restrained and beaten by Wilson County guards. Federal and state investigators soon learned of at least 11 other beatings that occurred between July 2001 and Kuntz's death in January 2003. It was Kuntz?s death that finally brought things to a head.
Guards Travis Bradley and William Westmoreland were the first to cave in to the pressure of investigators. Bradley was charged with lying to an FBI investigator; Westmoreland was charged with assault. On November 13, 2003 both men pleaded guilty and agreed to testify in return for lighter sentences. Westmoreland received three years probation with six months to be served in detention, while Bradley was sentenced to two years probation.
Guard John McKinney was the next to fall when it was revealed that he had witnessed but failed to report an assault. On April 9, 2004 McKinney entered a plea of guilty. He also received two years probation.
Jail guard Christopher Lynn McCathern pleaded guilty on June 9, 2004 for his part in the beating of Vincent Gooch. He was sentenced to 41 months in prison followed by two years supervised release.
Another Wilson County jail guard, Gary Hale, finally succumbed to over a year of pressure from federal investigators. On December 28, 2005 Hale pleaded guilty to participating in Kuntz's beating death. He accepted a single charge of conspiracy to violate the civil rights of prisoners and detainees in exchange for his testimony against Marlowe and the other defendants. Two other charges against Hale, which carried potential life sentences, were dropped. He was sentenced to nine years.
Hale's statement to investigators accused Marlowe and others of "striking, punching, kicking and otherwise assaulting inmates in circumstances that did not justify the use of force." He also stated that he and coworkers were complicit in coordinating and submitting "false, incomplete and misleading jail reports for the purpose of covering up these assaults."
Guard Robert Brian Ferrell was the next to fall. On January 3, 2006, less than a week before trial, Ferrell pleaded guilty to the 2002 beating of jail prisoner Dartanian McGee. Ferrell also implicated Marlowe, Hale and guard Robert Locke in the beating. As with Hale, two other charges against Ferrell were dropped in exchange for his guilty plea. More importantly, Ferrell avoided involvement with the trial and Kuntz's death. In exchange he was sentenced to one year in prison.
Trial for the remaining three defendants began on January 10, 2006.
Patrick Marlowe, Tommy Shane Conatser and Robert Locke were tried for what was described as an 18-month reign of terror at the Tennessee jail.
The trial centered around the beating death of Walter Kuntz.
State medical examiner Dr. Bruce Levy compared Kuntz's head trauma to the victim of a multi-story fall or a victim ejected during a car crash that hit the pavement head-first. The swelling in Kuntz's head was so severe that one side of his brain literally shifted to the other. Dr. Levy also said Kuntz had three broken ribs and a damaged scrotum, both of which would cause excruciating pain. Levy estimated that Kuntz could very well have remained awake and aware for a full two hours before brain swelling rendered him unconscious.
Ultimately, "Mr. Kuntz died because he was beaten in the head," Dr. Levy informed jurors.
The trial took just over two weeks and the verdict was delivered in just under two days. The federal jury found Marlowe guilty on seven of the eight counts against him, including contributing to Kuntz's death by withholding medical care.
Locke was acquitted of all charges.
Conatser was convicted on one count of conspiracy to violate prisoners' rights and was sentenced to a 70-month prison term in May 2006.
Marlow, 28, described by prosecutors as the ringleader, was sentenced to life imprisonment on July 6, 2006. That wasn't sufficient, according to Kuntz's son, Kenny Brown. "I've never got to meet my dad, and he took that away from me," said Brown. "He [Marlowe] didn't get enough in my book. He ought to have been put to death like my daddy was."
Marlow, who had pleaded for leniency, said he was young and inexperienced, and had followed the example set by his superiors at the jail. Apparently the example of beating prisoners to death was the wrong one to follow.
Source: The Tennessean
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