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Jurors begin
deliberating in prison rape lawsuit trial

Jurors begin
deliberating in prison rape lawsuit trial

Jurors in a federal lawsuit began deliberating Monday as to whether six prison employees violated a gay convict's constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment by not protecting him from rapes by inmates. Roderick Keith Johnson, while serving a sentence for burglary, was sold as a sex slave by gangs during his 18 months at the Allred Unit near Wichita Falls, Texas, while callous prison officials never investigated his reports of abuse, 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. Johnson, 37, whose nearly four-year prison term ended in 2003, is seeking unspecified damages against an assistant warden and five other Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials working at Allred. A seventh employee named in the suit was dropped from it earlier in the four-week trial. But David A. Harris of the Texas Attorney General's Office, which is representing the defendants, said there was no evidence Johnson was raped and that he changed his stories. His behavior--wearing tight pants and flirting with a corrections officer--does not indicate he was in constant fear of gangs, Harris said. Harris also said Johnson lied under oath about several things, including his drug use. Johnson had told jurors that he had not used cocaine in several months, but his parole officer testified that after Johnson failed a drug test, he admitted to taking drugs several times in the past few weeks. "Somebody's lying to you, and who's got the most motivation?" Harris said during closing arguments Monday, adding that Johnson later wrote a letter telling his lover they would get money from his lawsuit. The jury of six men and six women must decide if each defendant showed deliberate indifference in failing to protect Johnson, and if so, whether their actions violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. 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 and threatened violence unless he performed sex acts. He said corrections officers made fun of him and told him to fight the other inmates or get a boyfriend for protection. One current inmate testified that inmates had sex with Johnson and paid the prison gang that "owned" him with commissary items worth $3 to $7. He said that none of the lawsuit defendants ever saw Johnson being assaulted but that some officers referred to Johnson as a woman and knew what the gangs were doing. After Johnson was moved to another prison in 2002, he didn't report any sexual assaults in the 20 months he was there. Johnson said he now must take medication for anxiety, depression, and nightmares and that he 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 "life endangerment claims" and when they denied his transfer requests. Johnson sued 15 prison officials in 2002. But last year the fifth 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. The remaining defendants are assistant warden Richard Wathen and Jimmy Bowman, Tommy Norwood, David Taylor, Tracy Kuyava, and Onessimo Ranjel. All still work at Allred except Ranjel, who is a state trooper. Tina Vitolo was dropped from the suit during the trial. Last year a Wichita Falls grand jury did not indict 49 prisoners Johnson had accused of rape. (AP)

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