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The prospect of prosecuting law enforcement officers in Houston courts has long been formidable; just ask any of the attorneys from the civil rights divisions of the U.S Department of Justice or the Harris County district attorney's office.
In the late 1970s Houston police officers received probation in the drowning of prisoner Joe Campos Torres. More recently, a jury refused to convict a Houston cop on mere trespassing charges in connection with the police killing of Pedro Oregon, who was shot by officers 12 times during a botched 1998 drug raid. In those and numerous cases in between, jurors rarely have brought the hammer down on area peace officers accused of using excessive force.
So attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union knew what they were up against in a recent civil trial in Houston federal court. The lawyers sought to prove that four state prison guards from the Estelle High Security Unit near Huntsville had committed an unprovoked and especially brutal attack on inmate Mark Knox, a five foot nine, 125-pound convict.
The attorneys' concerns proved well founded. After five days of testimony last month, six jurors needed only 75 minutes to return a verdict clearing the defendants, who included three former Texas Department of Criminal Justice guards, Christopher Williams, Derick Van Buren and Lee Cox; and current prison employee Robert Jenkins.
Knox attorney Yolanda Torres and co-counsel Bruce Anton, both of Dallas, were disappointed with the results. "These guards beat Mark, and they got away with it," Torres says. "We're gratified that we had a chance to put Mark's case on and expose what happened, but all the evidence didn't get in."
Knox claimed in his lawsuit that the four attacked him in May 1999 at the Estelle Unit. He had been escorted from his solitary confinement cell to a closet-sized medical holding cell, ostensibly to have a nurse look at his injured finger. Knox alleged that following the examination, three of the guards shoved him to the floor and beat him in the face with their fists and a nightstick, while a fourth kicked him in the face.
The ACLU came upon Knox while Torres was looking for brutality cases. For several months the organization had been receiving complaints from inmates and their families about excessive force by guards at the Estelle prison. Torres said in an article last year ("Unnecessary Roughness," by Steve McVicker, October 12) that she was horrified at Knox's condition when she first saw him. However, his wounds were largely healed by the time prison officials finally granted her permission several weeks later to photograph those injuries. The guards maintained that they had to use force to subdue a violent Knox.
In the trial, U.S. District Judge Simeon Lake barred Torres from revealing that defendant Williams was forced to resign after prison officials discovered that he had collected "souvenirs" -- items such as a clump of an inmate's hair and photos of, among other things, what appear to be blood-splattered cells -- of his encounters with other convicts.
Nor did Lake allow the jurors to know that Willliams has been accused of brutality by at least ten other inmates during his four years as a state prison guard. While the jury also was restricted from hearing that Knox is serving a 55-year sentence for rape, the judge did allow state attorneys to present other evidence about Knox. Most damaging was information about his aberrant sexual behavior while in prison, including masturbating in front of a prison nurse and spelling her name on a window with his semen.
Given Knox's deviant actions, Assistant Texas Attorney General Carl Reynolds believes the ACLU made a bad choice of a plaintiff for a test case on prison guard brutality.
"[W]e think this case stood for more than a single use of force," says Reynolds. "It was obviously something that the ACLU was really getting behind. And while I can understand where they are coming from and why they would do that, I never thought that this was the right case for them to take a stand on. And I'm glad the jury saw it that way also."
However, at least one juror was less than impressed with the defendants -- especially Williams.
"I was getting really frustrated as a juror listening to him because he had amnesia as far as I'm concerned," says Dora Valdez of Houston. "He could not remember anything when Ms. Torres was talking to him. It was like, 'I don't remember, I don't remember, I don't remember.' But when his attorney came up, he could remember everything to the tee. I had a problem with that."
Valdez doesn't believe she heard the whole story of the violent confrontation, adding that knowledge of the other allegations against Williams might have made a difference in the verdict.
"It would have made the plaintiff's case a little stronger," she says. "And we felt like there was probably more to [the story], but we had to go on what was said and presented. I'm just afraid you're not getting the best of society to work the criminal system." The guards "were probably just a couple of steps higher than Knox," she says.