Iowa Prison Officials Drop Disciplinary Sanctions in Controversial Case
by Matt Clarke
In 2009, Iowa state prisoner Joe Byrd was accused of participating in a prison gang rape along with four other prisoners. He not only asserted his innocence, but steadfastly maintained that the crime never happened. After a seven-year battle over disciplinary charges, the Iowa Department of Corrections (DOC) announced last year that it was removing all the disciplinary sanctions imposed on Byrd due to the rape allegations in exchange for Byrd dropping his disciplinary appeal and agreeing not to sue the department.
Phillip Mears, Byrd’s attorney for over 35 years, said the compromise ends “the most incredibly remarkable and unusual” prison disciplinary proceeding he had ever seen.
The case started at the Newton Correctional Facility when a prisoner claimed he had been raped in Byrd’s cell for two to three hours by five other prisoners. Prison officials launched an investigation into Byrd – who was serving a 25-year sentence for a 2007 robbery – and four other prisoners.
By the time he was charged with a disciplinary offense for the rape, Byrd had been transferred to Anamosa State Penitentiary where William Soupene was serving as an administrative law judge. Soupene reviewed reams of confidential evidence – including the finding by a prison investigator that the victim was not credible, a recorded phone call by the victim after the alleged rape in which he said he felt safe at Newton but had been raped at another prison, and the victim’s previous allegations of rape by employees which had proven to be false. Soupene concluded there was no credible evidence the rape had occurred and announced that he planned to dismiss the case unless prison officials came up with more credible evidence.
The DOC responded by removing Soupene from the case in 2010. They instead assigned an administrative law judge from the Newton facility, Kristian Anderson, who had already found the other four prisoners guilty and proceeded to do the same to Byrd, who was sanctioned with one year of disciplinary detention and forfeiture of one year of earned time – the maximum penalty. He was also classified as a sex offender and required to participate in sex offender treatment.
Byrd filed a federal civil rights suit, alleging the removal of Soupene violated his due process rights. The district court agreed in an August 2014 ruling and ordered a new hearing. [See: PLN, May 2015, p.50].
A different judge found Byrd guilty in a hearing during which he was not allowed to have an attorney, call Newton prison guards as witnesses or see the evidence used by the court. His appeal of that disciplinary conviction was pending when, in July 2017, the DOC offered to restore his earned time and drop the sex offender classification in return for Byrd dismissing his appeal and agreeing not to sue.
Soupene, now retired, called Byrd’s case one of the greatest apparent miscarriages of justice he had seen in the over 100,000 cases he handled during his 42-year career as an administrative law judge for the DOC.
Sources: www.dailyprogress.com, www.omaha.com