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Ex-correctional officers found not guilty of beating inmate

September 18, 2009|By ERIN JULIUS

HAGERSTOWN -- "Finally."

That was Keith Morris' only remark Friday after a Washington County Circuit Court jury found him and another former Roxbury Correctional Institution officer, Robert Harvey, not guilty of assaulting an inmate on March 8, 2008.

Morris, 27, and Harvey, 63, each were charged with second-degree assault.

The jury deliberated for more than two hours at the end of the four-day trial before returning the verdicts.

"The court system does work," Harvey said after the verdicts were read.

Harvey said he wants to stay as far away from the Maryland Division of Corrections as possible.

He initially retired amid the abuse allegations in 2008, but his status later was changed to "terminated." He went through an administrative hearing process to get that status changed to "retired while under investigation," which is better than terminated, he said.

"I don't want my job back," he said.

Circuit Judge W. Kennedy Boone III admonished several people who burst into tears after the verdicts were read. He had asked those seated in the gallery to control their emotions whatever the verdicts.

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The assault charges had their roots in a March 8, 2008, incident in which correctional officer Timothy Mellott went to check on inmate Kenneth Davis in his cell on the housing tier and the inmate allegedly struck Mellott in the face. Davis was taken to a holding cell in the medical dispensary building, where prosecutors alleged he was attacked.

Closing arguments lasted more than three hours Friday morning.

Assistant Maryland Attorney General Jason Abbott stressed what he called an essential point to which all of the state eyewitnesses testified. They all remembered Harvey kicking inmate Kenneth Davis, he said.

Minor differences in the witnesses' stories, such as whether Davis was standing or sitting when he allegedly was kicked, occurred because different people saw it happen from different angles and might have remembered it differently, he said.

"That's how people are," Abbott said.

"It wasn't happening in slow motion. (Correctional officers William) Rubio and (Steven) Veinote weren't expecting Robert Harvey to fly off the handle and kick Kenneth Davis," Abbott said. "No one told them to take a pen and pad and write it all down."

Abbott accused the defense witnesses, several of them correctional officers who testified Thursday that they never witnessed an assault, of engaging in a cover-up.

"What happens in a prison? Obviously, correctional officers want to protect each other, wanted to keep this a secret," Abbott said.

Investigators had to dig deep to find the truth, he said.

"The truth was buried so deep, hidden behind a blue wall of secrecy," he said.

He recounted some of the defense witness' inconsistencies for the jury.

Correctional officer Scott Boozel testified that he left the dispensary building and didn't return. Security video footage, however, shows he did return to the building, Abbott said.

Correctional officer Andrew Rice testified that he wrote a report that was signed by Davis about what happened on the housing tier. Investigators testified that Rice told them previously that Harvey promised the inmate there would be no more beatings if he signed the statement. Rice on Thursday denied he ever said that.

"Officer Rice was going to say whatever he had to say on the witness stand to cover for Robert Harvey, to cover for Keith Morris," Abbott said.

Davis was a convicted criminal, but he was where he was supposed to be -- in prison, Abbott said.

"What separates us from the Taliban? Everyone has to follow the same laws. We're not apologizing for Kenneth Davis, but he was handcuffed defenseless, helpless and they beat on him. That is against the law. That is second-degree assault," Abbott said.

Defense attorneys Scott Rolle, who represented Harvey, and Wiley Rutledge, who represented Morris, pointed out during their closing arguments inconsistencies in testimony by the state's witnesses.

Rubio and Veinote, who escorted Davis to the medical dispensary, both initially lied in written reports and to investigators, Rolle told the jury. Both men had testified to seeing Harvey kick Davis.

"Once a liar, always a liar," Rolle said.

Rubio and Veinote received long-awaited transfers to other institutions in Western Maryland in the months after they cooperated with the state, Rolle said.

Rolle called the testimony of Timothy Mellott, who was charged with and pleaded guilty to second-degree assault, "bought testimony." The state will give a good report about Mellott's cooperation to the judge when Mellott is sentenced, Rolle said.

"You should not convict anyone on the testimony of a guy like that," Rolle said.

Rolle also questioned why investigators didn't record many of the interviews.

"Maybe they don't want us to know techniques they used to get these confessions," Rolle said.

Rutledge spent a considerable amount of time in front of the jury tearing apart what he called the "four stars" of the state's case -- Veinote, Rubio, Mellott and Davis.

Rutledge said Mellott and Davis told different versions of what happened in the inmate's cell in the housing unit, and Mellott was the only witness who testified that he threw Davis against a wall and then to the ground in the holding cell at the dispensary building.

Boozel also was charged with second-degree assault in the incident. His trial in June ended in a mistrial after the jury couldn't reach a verdict. He has been reinstated and works at Maryland Correctional Training Center south of Hagerstown. His case is pending.

Dustin Norris, 25, and Tyson Hinkle, 34, both of Martinsburg, W.Va., and Michael Morgan, 39, of Fort Ashby, W.Va., also were charged with assaulting Davis. They are scheduled for trial on second-degree assault charges Oct. 5 to 7, according to court records online.

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