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Federal Jury Awards $45,001 to Maryland Prisoner Assaulted By Guards

On October 22, 2004, a federal jury awarded a Maryland state prisoner $45,001 in damages after concluding that Institution (WCI) guards violated his civil rights by beating him while he was handcuffed.

The jury found guards Gary A. Knight and Robert Huff individually liable for assaulting Norman R. Willis, 37, a prisoner in protective custody at WCI. The award consisted of $45,000 in punitive damages and $1 in compensatory damages.

The award takes on special meaning because such a pro-prisoner verdict is uncommon in Maryland, say legal experts. "This is a very important ruling for no other reason than that it is so rare," said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who specializes in prisoner issues. "It is extremely rare for these cases to go to verdict, and even more rare for a convict to prevail. One takes immediate notice when one hears about these cases."

Willis named 10 guards as defendants in his 42 U.S.C. § 1983 lawsuit, claiming they assaulted him on at least two occasions, threatened him, and encouraged other prisoners to attack him in retaliation for filing written complaints against the guards.

During the weeklong trial, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett dismissed 4 of the guards and 5 of the 9 counts. In addition, jurors found for the guards on 3 of the 4 remaining counts. They sided with Willis, however, on his claim that while escorting him to a lieutenant's office to discuss a complaint against a guard, Knight and Huff slammed his head against a wall.

The state appealed shortly after the verdict claiming that Willis possibly concocted the incident in order to sue the guards. "The assistant attorney generals handling this case believe it is worthy of an appeal, and they are prepared to defend the officers fully against these accusations, which we believe may be totally fabricated," said Correctional Services spokesman Mark Vernare1li.

WCI is also the subject of at least two federal investigations. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating prisoner claims of abuse by guards, and the FBI is investigating the death of WCI prisoner Ifeanyi A. Iko on April 30, 2004.

Iko, a 51-year-old Nigerian immigrant, was subdued by guards after he refused to leave his cell for a psychological evaluation. During the take down guards used three cans of pepper spray and covered his head with a mesh "spit mask." Iko was then transported to a cell in another part of the prison, where his motionless body was discovered several hours later.

Although the state medical examiner ruled his death a homicide from asphyxiation, an Allegany County grand jury declined to indict the guards. There's no word on whether state officials also believe Iko faked his death in order to sue.

Knight and is upheld. Both Willis was jury in Maryland awarded $45,001 to a. two guards at the Western Correctional rights by slamming his head against a if this stuff is going on, the on top of it," said Stephen Z. Meehan, Rights Information System of Maryland.

Huff will likely be indemnified by the state if the verdict guards are still employed at WCI. Represented by Stephen Z. Meehan, Joseph B. Tetrault, and Tarnal A. Banton, attorneys for the Prisoner Rights Information System of Maryland. There were no fees in this case. See: Willis v. Youngblood, USDC D MD, Case No. RDB-02-2853.

Additional source: The Baltimore Sun

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Related legal case

Willis v. Youngblood