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HRDC Appeals Denial of Public Records Request for Documentation of Secret Settlement in Maine Jail Prisoner’s Excessive Force Lawsuit

by Matt Clarke

On July 6, 2021, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), publisher of Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News, filed an appeal in Maine state court after being denied access to public records. PLN had sought a copy of the settlement in a lawsuit brought by a former Kennebec County jail prisoner alleging excessive use of force by jail staff. The only document the county provided reflected a settlement amount of $1, but the Maine County Commissioners Association (MCCA), which insures the county, told HRDC the settlement amount was $30,000.

The underlying federal civil rights lawsuit was filed on July 6, 2020, by Jonathan Afanador, 26, against the county and former Kennebec County jail guard Nathan Willhoite, alleging Willhoite used excessive force on him. Afanador, who is Black, alleged that Willhoite pepper sprayed him without justification and that another guard used a racial epithet during the incident.

The video-recorded incident shows Willhoite and the other guard removing Afanador from his cell into a common area during a general shakedown. The prisoners were ordered to sit down. Afanador was standing and reading a book when Willhoite grabbed his arm, pepper sprayed him in the face, spun him around, and slammed him onto a nearby table. Willhoiute then took him to an isolation cell, where Afanador allegedly had no opportunity to wash off the pepper spray or receive medical attention until the next day. Willhoite’s justification for all of this was that Afanador had ignored the order to sit down.

HRDC became aware of the lawsuit and its settlement from a May 3, 2021, article in the Portland Press Herald and filed a Freedom of Access request pursuant to 1 M.R.S.A. § 408-A for all records pertaining to the settlement. In response, attorney Peter T. Marchesi of Wheeler & Arey of Waterville, Maine, the law firm serving as the county’s general counsel, produced three court documents and a settlement agreement, which said the lawsuit was settled for “One Dollar and Other Good and Valuable Considerations” and contained a confidentiality clause. Thereafter, Marchesi maintained that there were no other settlement documents, though MCCA confirmed the settlement was for $30,000.

With the assistance of attorneys Zachary L. Heiden and Emma E. Bond of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine Foundation in Portland, HRDC filed the appeal, maintaining that no public entity settles a lawsuit for $30,000 without generating paperwork stating the correct amount of the settlement. The appeal names the county and MCCA as defendants.

The Press Herald article noted that Afanador was sentenced in May 2020 to four years imprisonment for two counts of aggravated drug trafficking and that Willhoite no longer worked at the jail. But according to Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason, Willhoite was subsequently employed by another law enforcement agency. See: Human Rights Defense Center v. Kennebec County, Me. Super. (Kennebec Co.), Case No. CV-21-131.

“The lack of transparency in how tax payer dollars are being spent to settle lawsuits involving racist excessive force cases against prisoners is especially troubling,” said PLN Editor Paul Wright. That government officials are knowingly lying to the public and media about lawsuit outcomes is another cause for concern. We will report the outcome of the lawsuit in a future issue of PLN

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Related legal case

Human Rights Defense Center v. Kennebec County, Me. Super. (Kennebec Co.)