Ruling against prison guards reassessed


A federal judge edged closer yesterday to throwing out a $45,001 judgment against two correctional officers who, a jury decided, used excessive force against a state inmate.

U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett held a hearing in Baltimore yesterday on the state's motions that he set aside the jury verdict, order a new trial or reduce the monetary damages that the federal jury awarded to Norman R. Willis, 37.

Bennett said that the jury might not have followed the standard for excessive force established by the courts and explained in instructions from the judge.

He said he will review Willis' trial testimony and issue a ruling by the end of the month.

Unless he finds that Willis described his injuries as substantial, the judge said it was likely that he would be forced to throw out the verdict.

The jury, in a rare finding against the prison system, concluded in October that two Western Correctional Institution officers violated Willis' rights by assaulting him and slamming his head against the wall while he was handcuffed.

Jurors awarded Willis $1 in compensatory damages and $45,000 in punitive damages.

Bennett said yesterday that case law also indicated that the difference between the compensatory and punitive damages may be too extreme in this case and may need to be reduced substantially even if the jury verdict stands.

Willis, who was moved to the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, had claimed that the officers threatened and assaulted him and directed other inmates to fight him in retaliation for his written complaints against the officers.

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