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First Circuit Upholds Ex-Boston Guard’s 46-Month Prisoner-Abuse Sentence

First Circuit Upholds Ex-Boston Guard's 46-Month Prisoner-Abuse Sentence

by Matthew T. Clarke

The First Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a 46-month prison sentence imposed on a former guard at the Nassau Street Jail in Boston, Massachusetts for beating a pre-trial detainee who suffered from Tourette's Syndrome.

Eric J. Donnelly, a federal prisoner, appealed his sentence following a guilty plea to charges of conspiracy to violate the civil rights of pre-trial detainees in his custody, conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice, and four counts of deprivation of rights under color of state law.

Donnelly worked at the jail from December 1989 through December 1999. By 1999, he was a supervisor and lieutenant over the emergency response team. From at least June 1998 through February 2001, Donnelly conspired with other guards and supervisors to "use excessive force to punish detainees who 'disrespected' the officers, 'put hands' on the officers, or otherwise misbehaved." The idea was to beat prisoners to teach them a lesson. The four beatings involved in Donnelly's prosecution took place between April 15, 1999 and October 16, 1999. This and other instances of abuse of prisoners in Suffolk County jails were previously reported by PLN. [PLN, Dec. 2003]. Donnelly appealed the sentencing level of one of the charges.

L.G. was a prisoner at the jail who suffered from Tourette's Syndrome, a condition that caused him to have physical and verbal outbursts he could not control. The physical outbursts consisted of tics; the verbal outbursts often involved profanity. On October 16, 1999, L.G. got up from his table in the dining facility to wash a piece of fruit. William Benson, a guard, admonished him for the rule violation but allowed him to wash the fruit. Upon returning to his seat, L.G. said something that offended Benson, so Benson had him returned to his cell in the medical unit.

In his cell, L.G. felt his Tourette's Syndrome taking hold and engaged in physical exercise to mitigate it. Benson heard L.G. bench pressing his bed and told him to "Shut the fuck up." L.G. replied, "You shut the fuck up. You people make fun of me around here all the time and I can't say nothing about it. Fuck you. No." Donnelly, who was in the medical unit watching TV, overheard the exchange and told L.G., "You will not talk to my officers that way." Donnelly and Benson then entered L.G.'s cell and beat him on the face, head and body. At one point one of them yelled, "We'll beat the Tourette's out of you."

Donnelly's plea agreement included the government taking the position that the proper offense level was 21 and recommending a sentence at the low end of the scale. The pre-sentence report included a two-level enhancement for all four victims because they were vulnerable victims by virtue of their incarceration. The trial court rejected the enhancement for that reason, but found that L.G. was a vulnerable victim by virtue of his Tourette's Syndrome and enhanced the sentencing level to 23, which carried 46-57 months. Donnelly appealed on the grounds that L.G. was not vulnerable and Donnelly could not have known he was vulnerable.

The First Circuit upheld the district court's finding that L.G. had been assaulted largely because of his Tourette's Syndrome and that the Tourette's Syndrome had made it difficult for him to not provoke guards. Thus, he was vulnerable within the legal definition of that word. The First Circuit also held that Donnelly had not preserved the issue of his lack of knowledge of L.G. being vulnerable because he did not object to it at trial. Therefore, his sentence was upheld. See: United States v. Donnelly, 370 F.3d 87 (1st Cir. 2004).

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Related legal case

United States v. Donnelly