Mixed-message verdict in prison abuse retrial

Published: Tuesday, Mar. 5, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3B
Last Modified: Tuesday, Mar. 5, 2013 - 8:25 am

A jury in federal court has found that Sacramento County sheriff's deputies violated the constitutional rights of two men by subjecting them to excessive force while they were jail inmates.

The eight-member panel, however, awarded each man only $1 in damages.

This was the second trial of a civil rights lawsuit brought against the county by Robert E. Hunter and Howard Eley. A jury in 2008 rejected their highly publicized claims that they were attacked while in custody for no legitimate reason.

But a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2011 that the jurors were not properly instructed on the law by U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. and sent the case back to him for a retrial.

Friday's verdict allows the men's attorney, Gary Gorski, to ask Burrell to order the county to pay his fees and costs. It will be up to the judge how much money Gorski is entitled to based on the work he did and the mixed-message verdict.

Gorski filed a motion over the weekend asking Burrell to make certain findings of fact based on the outcome of the trial, including that the deputies' unlawful actions grew out of a long-standing "practice or custom … that constituted a standard operating procedure" at the jail.

The motion also seeks a permanent injunction from Burrell barring such behavior by deputies in the future.

"The issuance of an injunction will serve the public interest in that it will prevent, or at least minimize, any future constitutional harm suffered by plaintiffs and others within the county of Sacramento at the hands of main jail deputies," the motion states.

Hunter claimed the toilet in his detox cell was clogged and overflowing and he signaled deputies to alert them and requested access to another toilet.

Instead, he alleged, he was thrown to the floor and subjected to force that resulted in an elbow fracture, stretched tendons and nerve damage.

Eley alleged that he and then-Deputy William Kevin Sowles had a verbal exchange, "following which Sowles shoved, slapped and then choked Eley without provocation."

Sowles was fired, but he was dismissed as a defendant in the suit because he was never served with it.

Call The Bee's Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.

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