10-19-05 - Six prison officials on Tuesday were found not liable in a federal lawsuit claiming they violated a gay burglary convict's constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment by ignoring his pleas for protection from inmate rapes.
Roderick Keith Johnson's lawsuit had sought unspecified damages against six Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials at the Allred Unit near Wichita Falls, where he said prison gangs raped him almost daily during his 18 months there.
The jury of six men and six women deliberated nearly eight hours over two days.
"We're obviously very disappointed, yet we think it was very important to do the trial," said Johnson's lead attorney, Margaret Winter, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. "I think the trial will have made a difference even though it didn't go our way. I really think it's been a wake-up call to public officials in Texas."
Johnson, 37, whose nearly four-year prison term ended in 2003, left the courtroom just before the verdict was read and was not immediately available to comment.
The defendants smiled and hugged their attorneys and each other. They were assistant warden Richard Wathen; corrections officers Jimmy Bowman, Tommy Norwood, David Taylor and Onessimo Ranjel; and administrative technician Tracy Kuyava. All still work at Allred except Ranjel, who is a state trooper.
"The jury's ruling shows a tremendous confidence in our ability to do our jobs professionally and without bias," the defendants said in a statement, declining to comment further.
Administrative technician Tina Vitolo was dropped from the suit earlier in the trial. 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."
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is committed to its zero-tolerance policy on prison rape, which is a serious problem faced by all corrections facilities, Executive Director Brad Livingston said in a statement.
Jurors could have found that some, all or none of the defendants were liable. The decisions did not have to be unanimous; 10 of the 12 jurors had to agree.
Juror Randy Shelton said the group believed the prison employees did their jobs properly in looking at Johnson's rape claims. Shelton said he didn't think there was enough evidence of the assaults.
"He probably was (raped), but he never came out with a rape test," said Shelton, 43, of nearby Henrietta.
Shelton also said Johnson lied while testifying. Johnson told jurors he started an organization in Marshall to help recently released inmates re-enter society, and that the police chief and district attorney were on his advisory board. The two officials testified that they thought the program was a good idea, but that it did not exist and they never agreed to be advisers.
The defendants and other prison employees testified that they could not substantiate Johnson's half a dozen or so rape claims because he changed his stories or there was no medical evidence. They said Johnson usually seemed upbeat in prison, wearing tight pants and flirting with a corrections officer.
Johnson had testified that prison gangs forced him to be their sex slave while officials never investigated his reports of abuse or kept him in a safer area for vulnerable inmates.
Johnson testified about nine hours over three days, saying some employees made fun of him during committee hearings and told him to fight the other inmates or get a boyfriend for protection. Five current prisoners testified, including one who said inmates 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.
Johnson also 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.
Johnson's 2002 lawsuit named 15 prison officials. 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.