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A federal prosecutor on Monday suggested that two prison guards on trial for instigating inmate violence had allowed a near-riot at a notorious California prison in a bid to influence a visiting federal judge. The 1993 incident at Pelican Bay State Prison, where a shot was fired over more than 400 inmates, was witnessed by Senior U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, then the chief judge of the Northern District. Assistant U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag told a federal jury that during a visit by Henderson as part of a high-profile prisoners’ rights case, the guards willfully ignored warnings that violence was imminent, leaving the impression that the pair tried to influence the litigation. Haag said Henderson and one of his clerks were brought to an observation point overlooking the yard just prior to the incident, while two more clerks and lawyers involved in the suit were left in the yard. One of the former clerks, San Francisco defense attorney Edward Swanson, is scheduled to testify in the case. “Mr. Swanson will tell you that it was very scary and it was very intense,” Haag told the federal jury. “Mr. Swanson will tell you that the day Judge Henderson was at Pelican Bay they found 26 weapons on the yard.” The allegation came during opening arguments in a federal civil rights suit against former Pelican Bay correctional officers Michael Powers and Jose Garcia. Presiding over the case is U.S. District Judge Martin Jenkins — Henderson’s courtroom neighbor. Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati partner David Steuer litigated the inmates’ civil suit. He isn’t expected to testify, but said Monday he doesn’t remember seeing any problems in the yard before a guard fired the warning shot. “Boom! There was a gunshot,” Steuer said. “They [the prisoners] all went down to the ground. “After the fact, I did hear that it was intended to impress upon Judge Henderson what a dangerous place it was,” he added, saying he didn’t know if it was true. If it was in fact an attempt to influence Henderson, it didn’t work. He later issued a scathing decision denouncing brutal conditions at one of the state’s toughest prisons. Henderson is not scheduled to testify in the criminal case. Solo Matthew Pavone, Garcia’s defense attorney, told the jury no one was injured during the incident, and that his client helped thwart a “planned attack by a group of inmates on another group of inmates.” But Haag said one of the inmates in the yard that day, Paul Longacre, had told Garcia he had a knife in his cell and that something was going to happen in the yard. Neither Garcia nor Powers confiscated Longacre’s knife or tried to stop the violence, however. “Officer Garcia [and] Sgt. Powers did not stop him from going to the yard,” Haag said. Swanson could not be reached for comment, and Henderson did not return a phone call seeking comment. The trial is expected to last several weeks. The incident involving Henderson is one of 10 allegations the prosecution has made. A majority of the charges involve allegations that Powers and Garcia helped set up inmate attacks upon those convicted of crimes against children. In opening statements in United States v. Powers, 00-105, the defense tried to discredit the inmates that will be testifying against their clients, and promised that other California correctional officers would testify in support of their clients. Wayne Ordos, Powers’ attorney, listed close to 20 prisoners expected to be called to testify in the case. He followed each name by listing their crimes, which included murder, rape, child molestation and kidnapping. He also challenged the prosecution argument that none of the cooperating witnesses received significant reductions in their sentences for cooperating, which is expected to be a bone of contention in a case which relies on prisoner testimony to prove the allegations. Lawyers for Garcia and Powers painted them as the victims of either vindictive inmates or overzealous internal affairs investigators. Garcia has already been convicted in state court of related charges. He had been represented by Robert Noel, who was convicted of manslaughter last month in the dog mauling death of Diane Whipple. Garcia and Powers observed Monday’s proceedings without expression.

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