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Excessive Force Suit Against Illinois Guards Must be Retried, Allowing Evidence of Guards’ Actions

Excessive Force Suit Against Illinois Guards Must be Retried, Allowing Evidence of Guards’ Actions

The Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held that a prisoner who sued guards for allegedly brutally injuring him during an uncuffing procedure must be given a new trial wherein evidence of the guards’ actions would be presented to the jury.

During the first trial, the district court had prohibited such evidence as being barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) and Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641 (1997), because the plaintiff had lost an earlier complaint in a related disciplinary hearing, and could not use 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to in essence readjudicate the underlying disciplinary conviction.

Alex Gilbert, incarcerated since age 14 and not legally skilled, filed a pro se lawsuit in U.S. District Court (S.D. Ill.), claiming prison guards had scarred his arm and twisted it out of its socket when uncuffing him after he had reentered his cell. Gilbert had purportedly started an earlier fracas, and was accused of the considerable feat of striking a guard with his cuffed hands while they were protruding from a hole in his cell door that facilitated safe uncuffing. Gilbert had challenged the guards’ actions in an institutional disciplinary hearing, and lost.

At trial, Gilbert did not want to admit he had struck any of the guards for fear that any such admission would become grounds for a criminal prosecution. But the district court ruled that absent the admission, and based upon Heck and Balisok, the finality of the underlying disciplinary conviction acted as a bar to relitigating related claims under § 1983. Accordingly, the evidence presented at trial was stopped after Gilbert’s initial actions were reported, and all evidence of his subsequent actions and the guards’ contested actions leading to his injuries were kept from the jury.

On appeal, Gilbert cried foul. The Seventh Circuit framed the question thusly: “Is a plaintiff’s confession to his own offense – a confession that might facilitate a criminal prosecution on top of the prison discipline – a precondition to a civil remedy against public officials who respond with excessive force?” Gilbert had wanted to introduce a witness who would testify that the size and location of the hole in the cell door made it impossible for him to hit a guard with cuffed hands. But the implication of such testimony was that Gilbert had in fact struck one of the guards.

The proper resolution of this dilemma, the Seventh Circuit held, was not to force Gilbert to first confess to hitting the guard so that rebuttal evidence could be heard, but to instead have the trial judge “implement Heck and Balisok in essence by instructing the jury simply that Gilbert did strike the first blow during uncuffing and that any statements offered by Gilbert in denial of this were to be ignored” (because they would have the disallowed effect of retrying the disciplinary findings). This would leave the jurors with the separable question of whether the guards had used more force than was necessary to protect themselves from Gilbert, who was handcuffed in his cell at the time.

Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded for a new trial in which Gilbert must be allowed to present evidence about what the guards did to him after he extended his hands through the hole in his cell door to have his handcuffs removed. See: Gilbert v. Cook, 512 F.3d 899 (7th Cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

Gilbert v. Cook