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Testimony begins in former correctional officers' assault trial

September 15, 2009|By ERIN JULIUS

HAGERSTOWN - Defense attorneys on Tuesday described their clients -- two former correctional officers who face second-degree assault charges -- as heroes who worked every day in a prison environment to protect the public and are wrongly accused of assaulting an inmate March 8, 2008.

The trial in Washington County Circuit Court for Robert Harvey, 63, of Hagerstown, and Keith Morris, 27, of Warfordsburg, Pa., is scheduled to last four days, but Circuit Judge W. Kennedy Boone III told jurors Tuesday morning the trial might run longer, possibly until Monday or Tuesday of next week.

"Contradictions, deceptions, lies," are what form the basis of the state's case, Harvey's defense attorney, Scott Rolle, said Tuesday afternoon in his opening statement.

The state's evidence, "is weak, it is pathetic and it is unreliable," Rolle said.

Harvey dedicated 34 years to serving the public in one of the most difficult jobs in America, Rolle said.

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While addressing the jury, Rolle turned to thank both defendants for their service and said he felt privileged to be representing one of the good guys.

Edward Button, one of the attorneys representing Morris, suggested the assault with which Harvey and his client are accused didn't even happen, and that injuries inmate Kenneth Davis incurred March 8 occurred during a scuffle in a housing unit when Davis attacked an officer.

Assistant Maryland Attorney General Jason Abbott said the case is about an abuse of power and trust. Harvey and Morris were entrusted with a job, and on March 8 they abused that trust, Abbott said.

After a scuffle with an officer on his housing tier, Davis was escorted to the prison's medical dispensary, Abbott said. Harvey asked what happened, and when he was told of the assault on a correctional officer, he kicked Davis in the midsection, Abbott told the jury.

Davis, who was handcuffed, fell to the ground, and Harvey and Morris hit and kicked the inmate, who tried to curl up to protect himself while yelling, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Abbott said.

Two other correctional officers, one of whom testified Tuesday, witnessed the incident, Abbott said.

Correctional officer William Rubio, who now works at Western Correctional Institution near Cumberland, Md., was the only witness to testify Tuesday.

Rubio testified that he saw a scuffle in Davis' cell between the inmate and correctional officer Timothy Mellott. Rubio and two other officers had to subdue Davis by taking him down by force, Rubio testified. At the suggestion of someone else, while writing reports about the incident, Rubio downplayed the force that was used to subdue Davis, he testified.

Rubio said he and another officer escorted Davis to a holding cell in the medical dispensary. Rubio testified he saw Harvey, Morris and Mellott kick and punch Davis.

Mellott has pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and agreed to testify in the trials of his fellow officers.

Another officer later walked into the holding cell and punched Davis in the face, Abbott alleged Tuesday. The state said in an earlier trial that Scott Boozel, 28, of McConnellsburg, Pa., was the officer who punched Davis.

A trial was held in June for Boozel, but Washington County Circuit Judge Donald E. Beachley declared a mistrial after the jury sent him a note saying it was deadlocked 11-1 in favor of a not-guilty verdict but could not make a unanimous decision.

Boozel was scheduled to be retried alongside Morris and Harvey, but his case was separated from those being tried this week. There is no date set for his trial.

A jury of eight women and four men, plus two alternates, was seated for the trial of Harvey and Morris.

Questioning potential jurors to ensure those chosen could judge the case fairly took more than three hours Tuesday morning. Many of the questions jurors had to answer centered on whether they had family members or friends working in the prison system.

Several potential jurors told the judge they would not be able to judge the case impartially because of information they got from people working within the prison system and the news media. They were not selected as jurors.

The trial is set to resume today at 8:30 a.m.

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