Ex-prison guard guilty on 4 of 14 counts
A judge's guilty verdict against a former Pittsburgh prison officer Friday shakes up the thicket of legal cases that has grown out of inmates' allegations of abuse at the penitentiary's F Block.
Tory Kelly, 41, of Aliquippa, faces sentencing March 20 on four counts -- felony intimidation of a witness and misdemeanor simple assault, official oppression and terroristic threats. Ending a weeklong trial, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David Cashman found him not guilty on 10 other counts stemming from allegations of former inmates at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh.
"Judge Cashman's felony conviction of this defendant sends a strong message that even inside of prisons, we are still a society of laws," said Mike Manko, a spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.
All of the crimes for which Mr. Kelly was convicted stem from encounters with a single inmate, Randy Jones, 24, of Verona. Jones pleaded guilty in 2010 to involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child. In October he sued Mr. Kelly and five other former SCI Pittsburgh employees in U.S. District Court.
"The fact that the counts for which Mr. Kelly was found guilty relate to Mr. Jones establishes Mr. Jones' credibility," said his attorney, Jon Pushinsky. "The conviction does pretty much put the stamp of civil liability against Mr. Kelly, in favor of my client in the ongoing civil case."
Will the state have to pay? "While the state may say they're not going to indemnify [former officers], that has yet to be determined," Mr. Pushinsky said.
Four sex crime convicts accused Mr. Kelly of beating or oppressing them. Judge Cashman found that only the evidence surrounding Jones' allegations proved guilt.
Jones testified that Mr. Kelly entered his cell and put on black gloves. He then boasted of his fighting prowess, struck Jones three times, and threatened to make his life "a living nightmare you won't wake up from," the prisoner testified.
Though Jones, as a brand new prisoner, was quarantined at the time, he promptly requested assignment to restricted housing, commonly called "the hole."
Why would Jones do that? The only reason, according to Assistant District Attorney Jon Pittman, is "because he's afraid of the guards."
Judge Cashman noted that Jones' allegations -- unlike those of the other three accusers -- weren't at odds with Mr. Kelly's work schedule. Other convicts said he beat them on days that he did not work, or in the morning, despite the fact that he never started work much before 2 p.m.
The defense hammered at the accusers' shifting stories and sullied backgrounds.
"The types of inconsistencies and outright falsehoods that have been brought into this courtroom are enough to create reasonable doubt," said David Cercone, who is Mr. Kelly's attorney, in his closing. He called the accusers "the kind of person who would manipulate a child into having sexual contact with them," and were now trying to advance lawsuits or get paroled.
Mr. Kelly was visibly stunned by the verdict. He left the courtroom, slumped down on a bench for several minutes, and left the courthouse without comment, walking alone.
He also faces a likely March trial on five counts stemming from an August 2011 encounter with another former officer, Curtis Hoffman. Mr. Hoffman has told investigators that Mr. Kelly tried to egg him into a fight, in an alleged effort to intimidate him out of talking with investigators.
Mr. Hoffman testified Thursday that he didn't see physical abuse, but saw former corrections officer Harry F. Nicoletti singling out inmates he viewed as pedophiles. He said the practice was widely known at SCI Pittsburgh.
"I expected a bombshell from Mr. Hoffman," Judge Cashman told Mr. Kelly. "What did I get? I got that you're a braggart. And that he had a problem with the way that whole operation was run, and with Nicoletti."
Steve Barth, an attorney who represents four inmates who have sued alleging abuse on F Block, said Mr. Hoffman's testimony will lead him to ask "who knew what, and when and why."
If prison higher-ups are shown to have ordered, approved of, or adopted a policy of violating inmates' rights, the state may be liable, he said.
The F Block allegations could keep lawyers busy for years.
Three other former corrections officers, starting with Mr. Nicoletti Jan. 8, face upcoming trials on charges of abusing inmates on the block, where freshly sentenced convicts from Western Pennsylvania spend their initial week before transfer elsewhere.
Seven former inmates have sued current or former Department of Corrections employees alleging mistreatment in the century-old, five-tier structure.
Five fired SCI Pittsburgh guards -- including Mr. Kelly and Mr. Nicoletti -- have sued state officials for wrongful termination. And three fired SCI Pittsburgh managers sued state officials saying they were punished for blowing the whistle, lost before a judge, but have appealed.
"I think each case stands on its own, although some of the allegations are interrelated," said Steve Colafella, who represents Mr. Nicoletti, 61, of Coraopolis, in the criminal case against him. "We're going to have the opportunity to confront these witnesses."
Mr. Nicoletti faces 89 criminal counts based on allegations of 21 inmates, some of whom claimed he sexually assaulted them. Preparing a defense on such a case is "very difficult, particularly when you have prior testimony in some cases in more than one proceeding," and the witnesses have complex criminal backgrounds, Mr. Colafella said.
First Published December 22, 2012 12:00 am