On his first day at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh, an hour after he told prison guards that he was a sex offender, things got rough, James Arthur Turner testified Tuesday at the trial of Tory Kelly, one of four former prison guards charged with abuses there.
"I was standing up in front of the [cell] desk, and with a closed fist, [Officer] Kelly hit me in my chest, and caused me to fall into my bed and hit my head against a wall," Turner, 31, of Crawford County testified.
A week later, shortly before he was transferred out of SCI Pittsburgh, Turner testified, Mr. Kelly found him again. "The first thing he did was punch me in the side of the face, near the temple."
The problem with Turner's account: Mr. Kelly didn't work either on the first or last full day of his stay at SCI Pittsburgh. "Is it possible that you just have the dates wrong?" asked Assistant District Attorney Jon Pittman.
"Correct," said Turner, who is imprisoned for aggravated sexual assault of someone under 13 years of age.
Turner was the primary witness on the second day of the trial of Mr. Kelly, 41, of Aliquippa. He faces 14 criminal counts drawn from prisoners' accusations and five related to an alleged attempt to intimidate a colleague.
The testimony showed just how tough it is to build a case on inmate accusations.
Backing up parts of Turner's account was David Sheetz, 32, of Crawford County, with whom he shared a cell for one day. Sheetz, who once pleaded guilty to indecent assault of a person under 16 years of age, said that Mr. Kelly told him that "my cellie was a child molester and a scumbag."
He also said he heard "the sounds of inmate Turner crying, like groaning" when officers harassed him in a different cell.
But each undercut the credibility of the other. Turner accused Sheetz of raping him in a cell. Sheetz later said "that would be false," when told of Turner's accusation.
Former inmate, Steven Arthur Friend Jr., 24, of Uniontown, said he was struck by a different former officer, Harry F. Nicoletti, while Mr. Kelly watched. He said that Mr. Kelly "didn't really do nothing to me except talk, frankly, dirty and egg Nicoletti on."
He said the incident and another "traumatized" him, but also said Mr. Kelly's involvement "wasn't a big deal."
Robert A. Williams, an inmate brought in to back up Friend's testimony, described hearing what sounded like more abuse than Friend described, and suggested it was a big deal.
"I ended up staying up the whole night with [Friend]," Williams said. Why? "If he kills himself while I'm in the cell with him, I get in trouble."
Veronica Brestensky, one of the attorneys representing Mr. Kelly, asked Williams if he might get early parole for testifying on behalf of the prosecution.
"I'm doing what's right," said Williams. "I don't see how I benefit from it at all. If anything, I'm putting myself in danger" because corrections officers at his current prison could retaliate against him.
Mr. Kelly is the first former SCI Pittsburgh officer to face trial following inmate accusations that they singled out prisoners convicted of sex crimes with minors for harassment and sometimes brutal abuse on the prison's F Block. Trial will resume today before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David Cashman.
Mr. Nicoletti faces trial next month on 89 counts related to a range of inmate accusations.
Rich Lord: email@example.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord.