SCI Pittsburgh officer's abuse trial set to begin

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Almost two years after a veteran officer was marched out of State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh under a cloud of suspicion, one of the guards accused of abusing inmates there is to go on trial starting Monday.

The corrections world will be watching the case of Tory Kelly, 41, of Aliquippa, who faces 19 charges including counts of intimidation of witnesses, terroristic threats, simple assault, official oppression, conspiracy, retaliation against a witness and stalking.

Several inmates and at least one former colleague are expected to testify against Mr. Kelly, while his attorney, David Brian Cercone, may attack the prisoners' credibility and harp on the lack of physical evidence.

The Department of Corrections declined comment on the cases Friday, and Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.'s office does not talk about pending trials.

The union representing the officers has been the loudest voice in their defense.

"These guys just performed their jobs and did it in a way that they were taught, and I think they'll be cleared," said Roy Pinto, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association.

What if they're convicted?

The state will "end up with officers who just are going to let things go," leading to danger and disorder in the prisons, predicted Mr. Pinto.

The matter started in 2010, when an inmate who had been transferred out of SCI Pittsburgh's cramped, century-old F Block told officials at his new prison that he had been sexually abused there. That led investigators to interview another inmate who said he had been hazed relentlessly on F Block after guards guessed that he was there for a sex crime.

Eventually Department of Corrections investigator Gary Hiler pulled records of all sex crime inmates who had been through F Block, most for just a few weeks prior to transfer to long-term lodgings. He traveled the state asking inmates if they had been abused on F Block, and showing them photo arrays of corrections officers.

The results included the suspension and then firing of eight corrections officers; criminal charges against seven, including three whose charges have been dismissed or dropped; and a slew of lawsuits by inmates and former staff against prison employees.

Facing the most serious criminal charges, including counts of institutional sexual assault, is Harry F. Nicoletti, 61, of Coraopolis. His trial is set to start Jan. 8. No other officer is accused of any sexual crimes.

Mr. Kelly is expected to agree Monday to a non-jury trial before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David Cashman.

The most vivid accusations against Mr. Kelly come from inmate William Zuschlag, 42, of Meadville, imprisoned for sex with a minor. At a preliminary hearing, Zuschlag said Mr. Kelly attacked him every day for a week. Zuschlag said Mr. Kelly told him that if he complained, "he would splatter my blood all over the walls."

"The difficulty, of course, for anybody presenting inmates as their witnesses -- and sometimes there's just no way around it -- is that they are seen as having something to gain by testifying," said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and author of the recent book "Failed Evidence." "That's going to be the pitch of the defense, that these guys are just out to do themselves some good" by helping prosecutors in hopes of getting paroled sooner.

The problem for Mr. Kelly is that some of the charges against him come directly from a former colleague.

In 2011, according to an affidavit by a detective from the Allegheny County district attorney's office, Mr. Kelly drove to the home of Curtis Hoffman, who had also worked on F Block and who was thought to be talking with investigators. Mr. Kelly, the affidavit said, accused Mr. Hoffman of talking behind his back and challenged him to a fight. That account forms the basis of five of the charges against Mr. Kelly.

"The unusual twist here is that there is a member of the guards" likely to testify against a colleague, Mr. Harris said. "That tends to make the inmate's testimony somewhat more believable, assuming it matches up."

It's not clear whether Mr. Hoffman, or other current or former corrections officers, will back up inmate accusations of abuse.

A Dec. 7 report by labor arbitrator Michael D. MacDowell said Mr. Hoffman testified at an August grievance hearing.

According to the arbitrator's report, Mr. Hoffman testified that Mr. Nicoletti would regularly "single out inmates who had been convicted of sex crimes against children." He would then isolate them, swear at them and accuse them of committing various sex acts with children.

Absent from the report is any indication that Mr. Hoffman saw physical abuse of inmates by Mr. Kelly or anyone else.

The grievance that was the subject of that hearing was filed by corrections officer Brian Olinger. He had faced abuse charges, but saw all of them dropped after a preliminary hearing. The department then fired him.

The arbitrator found that Mr. Olinger failed to report that other officers were identifying sex crime inmates in front of fellow prisoners and harassing them. But he found that there was not reliable evidence that Mr. Olinger spit on an inmate.

The arbitrator ordered the department to return Mr. Olinger to work with back pay, reducing his termination to a seven-day suspension. The department could still appeal the ruling to Commonwealth Court.

Mr. Pinto said the arbitrator's ruling is an indication that the department conducted a faulty probe of the accusations made by F Block inmates.

"When you're there to control inmates that don't understand rules and laws, you have to handle things in certain ways that the general public doesn't understand, but that the inmate understands," Mr. Pinto said. "Sometimes [officers] raise their voice. Sometimes they curse."

The F Block cases, he said, are "important for every officer that's in every institution, because it could be any one of them at any given time. "

region

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


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