Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Eighth Circuit Rules Guard’s History of Excessive Force too Prejudicial or a Jury to Hear in Prisoner’s Excessive-Force Case

Another Guard Escapes Liability by Refusing to Participate

by Jacob Barrett and Matt Clarke

What happens to a prison guard accused of using excessive force who fails to show up for trial? A recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit says the answer there is: Nothing.

That’s just one surprising takeaway from the Court’s decision on May 18, 2021, affirming a district court’s pretrial rulings in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights action brought by a Missouri state prisoner, Carlden Trotter.

In addition, the three-judge panel also let stand the lower court’s decision to bar incriminating evidence against guards accused of assaulting Trotter—including one’s dismissal for a later use of excessive force against another prisoner—because it would be “way too prejudicial” to show a jury.

Trotter is no stranger to dust-ups with prison guards, having received an additional 15 years added to his sentence after a jury convicted him of assaulting one in 2016. The incident in this case also began with an assault by Trotter on a guard in the prison kitchen, where Trotter was working.

Four guards responded, placing him in handcuffs and taking him to the medical unit and then to administrative segregation. Along the way, Trotter alleged, they punched, kicked and stomped him, rammed him into various objects and even threw him into a snowbank. Trotter then filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, raising claims of excessive use of force and denial of medical care for his resulting injuries.

Three of the four guards, including
David Shipley, testified at trial. They insisted that while moving Trotter, all of them simultaneously and “accidentally tripped and fell in the snow.” But they maintained that no one struck him. Testimony of medical staff was similarly unhelpful in resolving the conflicting stories.

Trotter tried to offer into evidence a letter the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) sent to Shipley, terminating him for using excessive force in an unrelated incident that occurred two years after the alleged assault on Trotter. The letter informed Shipley of his “dismissal” for using a “closed fist” to strike a prisoner who “became assaultive toward [prison staff].” It further mentioned Shipley had made a “threatening statement” about his estranged wife.

After hearing from both sides, the district court decided that the letter was “way too prejudicial” to admit. Among other things, the evidence “potentially invited the jury to punish Shipley for his other bad acts, including the threat against his estranged wife, which had no connection to the alleged assault on Trotter.” In addition, the district court said that “Shipley’s later use of excessive force risked having the jury jump to the conclusion that if he struck one inmate, he must have struck Trotter too.”

“There was a distinct possibility, given that other guards were also on trial, that the jury would hold Shipley’s bad acts against them, too,” the court said.

Trotter also asked to introduce into evidence a report showing that a supervisor investigating the alleged assault against Trotter never requested security-­camera footage. In an effort to get the report admitted, Trotter tried to call the supervisor as a witness. However, the district court decided that the report, like the DOC’s termination letter to Shipley, was inadmissible as well, in part because “both would be more prejudicial than probative.”

As for the one guard who refused to appear or otherwise participate in the trial, Scott McFarland, Trotter requested an instruction that would have required the jury to assume that the accusations against the guard were “true.” But the district court also rejected that request. The jury then found in favor of the other three guards.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit agreed with the district court’s holdings. About the report, it said that “[t]he risk was that it would create a sideshow at trial, ‘confus[e] the issues,’ and ‘wast[e] time’ by drawing attention away from the alleged use of excessive force by the four guards.”

The Court acknowledged that Trotter hoped the jury would see a cover-up: “a supervisor trying to protect the guards who worked for him by closing his eyes to anything that could lead to a finding of misconduct.” But it agreed with the district court that since no one had even “seen th[e] video” to “know[ ] what’s in it,” there was no telling what it would show or if there was any reason to cover it up.

Neither the district court nor the Eighth Circuit addressed the possibility that the supervisor may have intentionally refused to review the video in order to cover for the guards. The district court did, however, specifically bar Trotter from mentioning the security-camera footage.

As for the guard who didn’t show up to trial, the district court opted for an anodyne instruction: “Mr. McFarland is not participating in this trial, and you will not be ... deciding [his] liability ....”

Trotter asked the court to say much more. His proposed instruction said that, “for purposes of [the] verdict in this case,” the jury must take as true that McFarland “struck [him] in the face while [he] was handcuffed; pushed [him] into a metal fence gate; threw [him] against a closed door; spit in [his] face; and threatened that if [he] did not plead guilty to assaulting [the guard in the kitchen], [the guards] would ‘get’ [him].”

The district court denied the request as prejudicial against the other defendants, and the Eighth Circuit agreed that refusing to give Trotter’s proposed jury instruction “was not an abuse of discretion because it would have misstated the law, likely misled the jury, and unfairly prejudiced the remaining defendants.”

Thus, the Court gave McFarland a free pass to avoid liability by not showing up to a trial and affirmed the judgment of the district court. See: Trotter v. Lawson, 997 F.3d 819 (8th Cir. 2021). 

Additional source: Park Hills Daily Journal

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Trotter v. Lawson