Correctional culture of retaliatory inmate beatings and cover-ups on trial in Baltimore
Published: February 19, 2014
After Maryland prison INMATE Kenneth Davis arrived at Hagerstown’s Washington County Hospital (now Meritus Medical Center) from nearby Roxbury Correctional Institution in March 2008, trauma doctors had to reconstruct his eye socket using plates and screws, re-set his broken nose, and treat him for a fractured rib, spinal damage, and blood in his urine, according to a physician’s court testimony in Maryland U.S. District Court in Baltimore on Feb. 12.
The fallout from what caused Davis’ injuries—blows from correctional officers (COs), alleged to have been delivered during beatings over three successive shifts at Roxbury in retaliation for Davis having previously given a CO a bloody nose—has included contested firings over the incident, largely unsuccessful state-level criminal prosecutions for assault, and the Maryland General Assembly’s 2010 passage of a law making it harder to discipline COs accused of wrongdoing.
The fallout continues. An FBI civil-rights and obstruction-of-justice probe into the Davis affair resulted early last year in federal charges being brought against nine former COs and supervisors, along with two lieutenants, a sergeant, and another CO who still worked in Maryland prisons.
Twelve of the defendants have since pleaded guilty in the case, in which prosecutors with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division allege that Roxbury Correctional Institution’s culture of retaliatory inmate beatings and cover-ups prompted the crimes. Three defendants—sergeant Josh Hummer, lieutenant Jason Weicht, and CO James Kalbflesh, none of whom had been previously prosecuted by Maryland authorities over Davis’ beatings—opted to take their chances before juries.
Hummer’s eight-day trial ended Jan. 31, when a jury convicted him of one count of witness tampering for lying to a Maryland State Police investigator about the incident, acquitted him of depriving Davis of rights, and failed to return verdicts for conspiracy and lying to an administrative judge. At his sentencing, scheduled for May 9, Hummer faces a maximum 20-year prison sentence.
Hummer’s attorney, Clarke Ahlers, says “I have great respect for Josh Hummer and am hopeful that [U.S. District] Judge [James] Bredar will see the goodness in my client” during sentencing. Regarding the verdict, Ahlers says “All the jury convicted him of is the conduct which he admitted to in 2008,” when Hummer initially told the State Police he had no knowledge of Davis being beaten, but days later returned to the State Police to admit what he knew.
Kalbflesh is accused of participating in one of the Davis beatings and obstructing justice in the ensuing probes, while Weicht is accused of advising COs to get their stories straight about what happened and helping them to cover up the crimes, including by providing a book about interrogation techniques to help prepare for interviews with investigators.
Their trial was in its third day on Feb. 12 when one of the prosecution’s witnesses—former sergeant Lanny Harris, who, having already pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the case, testified against his former colleagues about Davis’ beatings and the coordinated efforts to stymie the subsequent investigation—was cross-examined by defense attorneys.
Kalbflesh’s attorney, James Shalleck, and Weicht’s attorney, David Solomon, sought to emphasize Harris’ history of lying about the incident before his more recent cooperation with authorities. “I was lying then … to keep out of trouble, keep my job,” said Harris—a stout fireplug of a man, whose face reddened while under pressure on the witness stand—but “I’m telling the truth now.”
Solomon noted statements Harris made to investigators immediately after the incident, in which Harris had said Davis’ injuries were “three-to-eleven’s baby.” Solomon called this a reference to the shift prior to Harris’, evidence that, even at the outset, Harris had been willing to throw his colleagues “under the bus” to protect himself. “That’s correct,” Harris responded, adding that he did it to protect “myself and my officers.”
Shalleck led Harris to recount how he’d lied at an administrative hearing after he’d been fired as a result of the Davis beatings, in an effort to regain job benefits. “If I told the truth,” Harris explained, “I obviously wouldn’t get them.” Solomon seized on this to get Harris to admit that he’d lied in an effort to defraud the State of Maryland.
Early last year, Harris explained under Shalleck’s questioning, an FBI agent’s business card appeared in the mailbox at his home in Martinsburg, W.Va. “I called to find out” what it was about, Harris said, and learned “they were going to retry the Kenneth Davis beating in federal court” because “the statute of limitations is five years” and the deadline was looming. Harris quickly entered a plea deal, he explained, because he “had lost one career” and “this has been basically been following me around since I lost my job,” so he wanted to “come clean”—though he admitted that, absent the FBI’s contact, his involvement in the beatings and cover-up would have remained a secret.
Marc Kross, the trauma doctor who oversaw Davis’ hospital treatment, testified that the inmate’s injuries were “very unusual,” “very serious,” and “extremely painful.” The broken eye socket was a “classic punch injury,” he said, involving the displacement of eye muscles, causing double vision. “Small rib-like structures in his lower spine” were broken, Kross explained, an injury “that takes a lot of force” and is “usually seen in car wrecks,” though it could be caused by “being stomped while on the ground.” The fractured rib was “very unusual” and “very serious,” he continued, because it affects respiration by causing “shorter, smaller breaths” that can lead to pneumonia, and was likely caused by being “down while being stomped.”
The 2010 law passed in the aftermath of the Davis affair is known as the Correctional Officers Bill of Rights (COBOR). Committee testimony before its passage asserted that COs had been railroaded by prison officials and prosecutors over the Davis beatings. Last April, COBOR was cited by the FBI as a contributing factor in the proliferation of COs helping the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) prison gang take control of Baltimore jails, which prompted federal racketeering charges against gang members and 27 COs. So far, nine COs have pleaded guilty, with three already sentenced to prison.
Given the high number of Maryland COs charged last year in federal court—40 in all, half of them already convicted—it’s no surprise the Maryland General Assembly is considering measures meant to rein in corrupt conduct among COs. One bill—sponsored by Baltimore County Del. John Cluster (R-8th District), a member of the Special Joint Commission on Public Safety and Security in State and Local Correctional Facilities, which was formed after the BGF scandal broke—would alter COBOR to give prison authorities more flexibility in investigating and disciplining alleged wrongdoing by COs. Another, sponsored by Baltimore City Del. Jill Carter (D-41st District), would cut retirement benefits for COs and other law enforcers who are convicted of crimes penalized with at least one year of incarceration.
The trial of Kalbflesh and Weicht is scheduled to continue at least through Feb. 21.
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