Two cases — one in Baltimore Circuit Court, one in federal court — include nearly identical allegations: that correctional officers in a Baltimore City Detention Center beat inmate Bryan C. Thompson on May 19, 2017.
In the Baltimore criminal case, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby is trying to convict and imprison the guards — among 25 indicted Tuesday.
In the federal lawsuit, the state attorney general’s office has been defending the same guards, and others, sometimes for years.
The indictment portrays the guards as a brutal, criminal gang, led by Lt. Kevin Hickson, that used force to maintain “dominance of its operational territory” within state-run jails. The 25 officers appeared Wednesday afternoon in Baltimore Circuit Court for a bail review hearing, and all were released on their own recognizance.
No trial dates have been set.
A review of the 236-count indictment, along with lawsuits filed by inmates in state and civil courts, shows the diverging interests — and interpretation of facts — facing prosecutors trying to win convictions and state civil lawyers trying to limit financial damages.
For example, Thompson is suing Cpl. Kenyatta Barrett, Hickson, Officer Jerry Suber — all named in the indictments — as well as others. Hickson, 49, who headed the Regional Tactical Team, a specialized unit to deal with violence, was added as a defendant in June.
The indictment says “Barrett and Suber conspired with each other and with [others] to commit assault in the second degree,” against Thompson.
That contrasts with the arguments put forth by Maryland Assistant Attorney General Laura Mullally. In a motion earlier this year to dismiss Thompson’s lawsuit, Mullally wrote that “the allegations themselves do not rise to the level of an excessive force claim,” adding that the U.S. Supreme Court allows guards great latitude to use force to quell prison unrest.
Mullally questions whether the incident that led to criminal charges even took place.
“The involvement, if any, of Barrett [and another officer, not charged] remains a mystery; all that is known is that they worked the day and shift in question at BCDC,” she wrote.
According to the lawsuit, on May 19, 2017, a prisoner at the Baltimore City Detention Center shattered a glass pane in a corrections officers’ control room, and other inmates ignored officers’ commands to return to their bunks, prompting Hickson’s Regional Tactical Team to report to the jail to help round up prisoners.
As they removed 34 inmates involved in the incident and transferred them to various facilities, an altercation broke out between Thompson and one or more corrections officers at the Baltimore jail, according to federal court filings.
Thompson claims several officers kicked and beat him after he was tackled to the ground. The defendants argue they had to subdue Thompson after he refused to obey commands and tried to punch Barrett.
As the state criminal case and various civil lawsuits move forward, legal experts say information that emerges in the state criminal trials could aid lawyers and inmates bringing lawsuits.
Baltimore attorney Joshua Insley said that, if any of the officers named as defendants in Thompson’s suit are found guilty of criminal charges related to the incident, “it’s just a matter of [collecting] damages.”
A Baltimore City jury awarded $25 million to a former detainee attacked inside the Baltimore City Detention Center in September, although the award amount is likely to be capped at $200,000 due to the state’s limit on tort claims against the state.
The same awards cap does not apply to federal complaints, like Thompson’s.
City attorneys are also battling to limit the city’s exposure to lawsuits born from the ongoing investigation into the corrupt action of the Gun Trace Task Force, as officials say the potential payouts could be devastating to city finances.
Insley said the criminal case could have far-reaching implications for still-pending cases against corrections officers within the unit, as attorneys can now look to the criminal prosecution for evidence to aid them in their cases as well as point to any guilty pleas or convictions that may arise as the case moves forward.
“Now all of those guys are in a position of strength,” Insley said.
A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office declined to comment when asked if the office is considering removing themselves from the case now that the allegations are part of a criminal indictment.
Thompson is not the only inmate alleging members of the unit abused them.
Lonnie Murrill claims in a complaint filed last month in U.S. District Court in Baltimore that Hickson and others violated his constitutional rights for failing to remove him from a cell he shared with a known violent inmate who attacked him in 2015 while Murrill was housed at the Baltimore City Detention Center. He claims the officers at the jail also failed to give him proper medical care and “obfuscated the prison complaint process.”
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The Attorney General’s Office is representing the Baltimore City Detention Center in the case and declined to comment on the case, citing the fact it is still ongoing.
That alleged incident is not cited in the indictments.
Stephen Meehan, an attorney with the Prisoner Rights Information System of Maryland, said inmates have an uphill battle because of the “he said, she said” nature of many of their complaints. Being behind bars also makes it difficult for inmates to fight their case.
“It’s so hard to prove this stuff because the government is in control of everything for the inmate,” Meehan said. “Everything’s stacked against inmates because most are felons. They’re disbelieved right out of the chute."