Jurors Deliberating in Prison Rape Lawsuit Trial

10-18-05 - After hearing nearly four weeks of testimony in a federal civil rights lawsuit, jurors must decide whether a gay inmate repeatedly endured rapes and humiliation by prison gangs while six employees refused to help him.

Jurors deliberated about two hours Monday and resumed Tuesday. They are considering whether the six Texas Department of Criminal Justice employees showed deliberate indifference in failing to protect Roderick Keith Johnson, and if they violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Johnson was sold as a sex slave by gangs during his 18 months at the Allred Unit near Wichita Falls, while callous prison officials never investigated his reports of abuse or kept him in a safer area for vulnerable inmates, his attorneys said Monday in closing arguments.

"Being violently assaulted in prison is simply not part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society," said his lead attorney, Margaret Winter, who is associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project.

But David A. Harris with the Texas Attorney General's Office, representing the defendants, said there was no proof of the rapes and that Johnson lied under oath about several things. Johnson told jurors that he had not used cocaine in several months, but his parole officer testified that after failing a drug test Johnson admitted to taking drugs in recent weeks.

"Somebody's lying to you, and who's got the most motivation?" Harris said during closing arguments, adding that Johnson wrote a letter telling his lover they would get money from his lawsuit.

Johnson, 37, whose nearly four-year prison term ended in 2003, is seeking unspecified damages against assistant warden Richard Wathen; corrections officers Jimmy Bowman, Tommy Norwood, David Taylor and Onessimo Ranjel; and administrative technician Tracy Kuyava.

Administrative technician Tina Vitolo was dropped from the suit earlier in the trial. All still work at Allred except Ranjel, who is a state trooper. Each of them occasionally sat on a three-member committee that decides whether to move inmates to safer areas, based on prisoners' "life endangerment claims."

If jurors find that any defendant is liable, they will decide how much money to award Johnson. Jurors could find that some, all or none of the defendants are liable. The decisions do not have to be unanimous; 10 of the 12 jurors must agree.

Johnson testified about nine hours over three days, saying prison gangs preyed on him because he is gay. He said some employees made fun of him during committee hearings and told him to fight the other inmates or get a boyfriend for protection.

One current inmate testified that prisoners had sex with Johnson and paid the prison gang that owned him with commissary items worth $3 to $7.

After Johnson was moved to another prison in 2002, he didn't report any sexual assaults during his 20 months there. Johnson said he now takes medication for anxiety, depression and nightmares and still struggles with drug abuse.

The defendants and other prison employees testified that they followed procedures in looking at Johnson's half a dozen or so claims and in denying his transfer requests. They said Johnson usually seemed upbeat, wearing tight pants and flirting with a corrections officer.

Johnson sued 15 prison officials in 2002. But last year the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans dropped eight of the original defendants, including the department's executive director and the prison unit's senior warden.

Last year a Wichita Falls grand jury did not indict 49 prisoners Johnson had accused of rape.