The trial of former corrections officer Harry F. Nicoletti began today with a prosecutor's characterization of the 61-year-old man as a cauldron of "demented desires" and the defense portraying him as a decorated public servant.
Mr. Nicoletti, of Coraopolis, faces 89 counts ranging from official oppression to institutional sexual assault. He is the central figure in an investigation of alleged abuse of inmates on the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh's F Block.
For three weeks, the 14 jurors, including two alternates, will be immersed in prison culture, hearing as many as 22 inmates -- most of whom were convicted of sex crimes, often against minors -- describe what they say happened to them at the hands of Mr. Nicoletti.
Each of the accusers "had commmitted a crime, no question," said Assistant District Attorney Jon Pittman. But in prison, they were the victims, he said.
"Their very lives are dependent on the corrections officers," he said. Jurors, he said, will see what happens when someone "uses that authority and control over others to fulfill his own demented desires."
Defense attorney Steve Colafella said the many accusations were the product of "a non-computerized social network" in which inmates share tales. "You've got inmates going from one prison to the next, and the rumors and the hyperbole go right with them."
He said that the prosecution has no physical evidence, no video, no medical records documenting inmate injuries, and no paper grievances against Mr. Nicoletti before word about the investigation got out. Mr. Nicoletti, in fact, had a good work record and had received his department's Medal of Valor.
One accuser, Jerry Lynn Shoemaker, 42, of Pittsburgh, testified. He is serving time for rape of a child and related charges.
Shoemaker said that when he entered SCI Pittsburgh, and Mr. Nicoletti became aware of his charge, the officer announced it to everyone on the block.
Then Mr. Nicoletti visited him in his cell, pulled out his own penis, stroked it, and told Shoemaker to masturbate him, the inmate said.
"If I didn't, he would have [another inmate] come in and beat the [expletive] out of me," Shoemaker told Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge David R. Cashman. "I started reaching up. He slapped my hand away and said, 'If you touch my [penis], I'll kill you,' or something like that."
Shoemaker said he later came to the conclusion that his food was being tampered with, and subsisted for several days on toothpaste alone. He later gave his account to counselors at another prison, thus starting the investigation of F Block.
Department of Corrections investigator Gary Hiler said the investigation consisted of hundreds of interviews. He said a camera system on F Block did not record footage.
A former colleague of Mr. Nicoletti, Tory Kelly, was convicted last month on four counts related to an inmate's abuse allegations, and acquitted on 10 counts. He faces a March sentencing.
Two other former colleagues await trial, also before Judge Cashman, and three faced charges that have since been dismissed or dropped.
All were accused of singling out for abuse inmates viewed as pedophiles.
Rich Lord: email@example.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord