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$215,000 Awarded to New Jersey Detainee Assaulted by Jail Guards

by Keith Sanders

On October 22, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey awarded $215,000 in damages to a former pretrial detainee at the Cumberland County Jail (CCJ) for injuries suffered during an assault there by guards and police officers.

Lourenzo Witt, the plaintiff, was arrested by Vineland Police Department (VPD) officers Christian Morales and Kenneth Farmer on March 6, 2019, on an outstanding warrant for a prior minor offense. They took him to CCJ, where Witt was met by six jail guards. Although he complied with all requests and posed no flight risk in the secure area where he was held, all eight officers and guards allegedly surrounded Witt and threatened him with “severe” consequences if he did not comply.

After removing the handcuffs from one of Witt’s wrists, guard Matthew Terres pepper-sprayed Witt in his eyes, the detainee’s complaint later recalled. Guards Michael Russell and Richard Cotto then allegedly threw Witt forcibly to the ground and held him down as Russell dug his knee into Witt’s back and then stomped on Witt’s face with a combat-style boot. Guard Sidney Giddons then held Witt’s face to the ground, the complaint continued, as Russell viciously punched him in the head and face. As a result of the assault, which was partially captured by a security camera, Witt suffered a fractured orbital bone along with several other permanent injuries.

On December 10, 2020, attorney Richard M. Pescatore filed a federal civil rights action in the Court on Witt’s behalf under 42 U.S.C. §1983 against the County of Cumberland, the City of Vineland, and the six jail guards and two police officers involved in Witt’s assault. The suit included twelve counts for assault, battery, neglect, and intentional infliction of mental and emotional distress, alleging the plaintiff was deprived of his Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment guarantees, as well as his rights and privileges under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act and the New Jersey State Constitution. Plaintiff also demanded a trial by jury. But on October 22, 2021, the parties entered their settlement without going to trial.

In July 2022, the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office found probable cause to indict Russell for multiple charges, including aggravated assault. To date, however, no charges have been filed against the guard. The prosecutor also refused to release the video of Witt’s assault in response to an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request by a local reporter. However, the OPRA request did secure documentation of a five-day suspension that Russell was given, although he did not actually serve it because the disciplinary gesture was recorded without a start and end date and was a “paper record … only.” See: Witt v. Cty. of Cumberland, USDC (D. N.J.), Case No. 1:20-cv-14678. 

Additional source: Transparency NJ

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