Texas jury
rejects gay convict's prison rape claims

Texas jury
            rejects gay convict's prison rape claims

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 for 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 the prison officials occasionally sat
on a three-member committee that decides whether to
move inmates to safer areas, based on prisoners' "life
endangerment claims." According to a statement
released by Texas Department of Criminal Justice executive
director Brad Livingston, the department is committed to a
zero-tolerance policy on prison rape, which is a
serious problem faced by all corrections facilities.

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

Tags: World, World

Latest videos on Advocate

From our Sponsors

READER COMMENTS ()