After 11 days of testimony, the criminal case against former prison guard Harry F. Nicoletti Jr. is expected to go to the jury Friday, following closing arguments Thursday which focused on the question: Who's the monster here?
The trial pitted a parade of prisoners who stayed on the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh's F Block -- many of whom committed sex crimes against children -- against a man who they accuse of abusing and in some cases sexually violating them. Credibility of the accusers became as much of an issue as that of the defendant.
"A sex offender takes their time," said attorney Steve Colafella, representing Mr. Nicoletti. "They manipulate. They intimidate. They wait for opportunities.
"They cannot, by their very nature, be trusted. If you can't trust your children [to be] around these monsters, then they can't be trusted to respect their oath" to testify truthfully.
"We didn't pick these victims," countered Assistant District Attorney Jon Pittman. "Officer Nicoletti picked them. And he picked them for a reason. He picked them because they're a little bit slow. They're weak. They're pathetic.
"These are not animals, they are people," he continued. "When they go to jail, they still have rights. They should not be physically abused."
Mr. Nicoletti, 61, of Coraopolis faces 80 counts ranging from official oppression to involuntary deviate sexual intercourse based on the allegations of 20 inmates who said they were abused on F Block, and around the same number of corroborating witnesses.
Mr. Colafella, in his closing, portrayed the charges as the result of an internal investigation that ran amok. He said that investigators armed with the accusations of one inmate traveled throughout the state's prison system looking for others. Then the rumor mill took hold and prompted others to jump on the bandwagon in hopes of currying favor, improving their chances of parole and, in some cases, filing lawsuits, he said.
Mr. Pittman said there was no way inmates could coordinate such a vast conspiracy well enough to tell very similar stories to investigators who visited them at nearly two dozen different prisons at different times, even before any hint of the allegations reached the media.
"The CIA at their best could not get that group of people to just sit and wait to be interviewed," he said, and "say similar things about how they were picked out, about how they were abused."
Thursday morning, Mr. Pittman asked Mr. Nicoletti why numerous prisoners who weren't victims of any alleged abuse nonetheless testified that they saw abuses.
"That is the million-dollar question," Mr. Nicoletti said. "I have no idea."
Mr. Pittman also grilled Mr. Nicoletti on his practices regarding bringing medicine into the prison. Several prisoners testified early in the trial that Mr. Nicoletti gave them Xanax or other prescriptions. One said that the officer compelled him to take a Xanax, so that if the corrections officer wanted to bust the prisoner, he could compel him to submit to a drug test.
Mr. Nicoletti said he regularly took aspirin and a heart medication into the prison but not his prescription Xanax. He said he would never risk his career by trying to sneak a controlled substance into the facility.
Mr. Pittman indicated that Mr. Nicoletti told a Department of Corrections investigator, upon his arrest in September 2011, that he did bring Xanax into the prison.
Mr. Nicoletti said his statements during and after his arrest must have been misinterpreted.
"My focus was on two people that I love: my wife and my daughter," Mr. Nicoletti said. "When I opened the door to my house," he continued, "I saw bright red, blue lights to my right. I saw them to my left. ... All I'm saying is that it is very traumatic. It was overkill."
Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David R. Cashman told the jury he would charge them this morning, dismiss the two alternates and allow them to begin deliberating.
In all, seven officers were charged with crimes allegedly committed on F Block. Three were later cleared, one was convicted on four counts, and two await trial. The allegations have also spurred 10 lawsuits, mostly by prisoners.
Rich Lord: email@example.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord. First Published January 24, 2013 12:00 PM