First trial starts for guards accused of abuse at state prison

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The first of what could be four trials stemming from allegations of abuse of prisoners at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh's F Block started Monday with an investigator's outline of the process that led to four accusations against former officer Tory Kelly.

Today, Mr. Kelly will get to hear the testimony of the four men who said he beat, terrorized or oppressed them during late 2010 and early 2011. He faces 19 criminal counts, including 14 drawn from accounts of prisoners and five stemming from an August 2011 encounter in which he is accused of trying to intimidate a colleague who was believed to be talking with investigators.

The first and only witness on the trial's first day was Gary Hiler, an investigator with the Department of Corrections Office of Special Investigations and Intelligence. Mr. Hiler spearheaded the probe that resulted in charges against seven SCI Pittsburgh officers, three of whom have had their charges dropped or dismissed.

Questioned by Assistant District Attorney Jon Pittman, Mr. Hiler said that he concluded early in his probe that corrections officers had targeted for abuse new inmates convicted of sex crimes against children who were housed temporarily in SCI Pittsburgh's F Block awaiting transfer to other institutions.

Mr. Hiler confirmed that no videotape exists of any of the alleged incidents nor any record of medical complaints by the inmates. He said he and staff conducted "several hundred" interviews of such inmates, resulting in the four accusations against Mr. Kelly and others against his colleagues.

The defense focused on whether the inmates might have motives to falsely accuse Mr. Kelly. Defense attorney David Brian Cercone said the inmates might be driven by "federal lawsuits, grievances, the chance to take a shot at a corrections officer."

"Inmates were not offered anything for giving interviews or cooperating" with the probe, Mr. Hiler told Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David Cashman.

Mr. Hiler said on direct examination that he interviewed one prisoner, Randy Jones, after that inmate sent a letter to a prison captain complaining of abuse. But cross-examination revealed that Jones only wrote about the alleged abuse after he was interviewed by Mr. Hiler.

Mr. Kelly has opted for a non-jury trial. His attorney declined comment.

One of the four former corrections officers still facing charges, Harry F. Nicoletti, 61, of Coraopolis, has been accused of sexual abuse of inmates. He has pleaded not guilty and faces trial Jan. 8.

Former officer Jerome J. Lynch, 36, of the North Side, also faces a possible Jan. 8 trial on seven charges of simple assault, official oppression, conspiracy and criminal solicitation. Bruce S. Lowther, 35, of West Newton, is scheduled for a Jan. 28 trial on two counts, official oppression and conspiracy.

Six inmates have filed civil suits against prison staff alleging abuse. Five fired guards have sued prison management alleging violations of their due process rights.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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