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A Southern District of New York jury has delivered a rare verdict by finding high-ranking corrections officials personally responsible for failing to heed an inmate’s pleas for protection before he was nearly killed for cooperating with prosecutors. Judge Lawrence McKenna presided over the civil trial. The state commissioner of correctional services, Glenn S. Goord, and the deputy superintendent for security at Sing Sing Prison were ordered to pay $7.5 million in punitive damages to the inmate. The prisoner’s requests to be segregated from gang members who wanted him dead had been backed up by the state judge who sentenced him to prison, but the requests did no good. Veteran attorney Paul E. Kerson of Leavitt, Kerson & Duane, who represented the prisoner, said he thinks it is the first case in New York in which high-ranking corrections officials have been ordered to pay punitive damages of this magnitude. Kerson said his client has been moved to another facility but has not yet been segregated. Because he said his client’s life is still in danger, Kerson requested that the prisoner’s name not be used. A Department of Correctional Services spokesman said Thursday that individual recoveries against a commissioner have been awarded in the past but have been reversed on appeal. Although they were found responsible in their individual capacities, by statute the commissioner and other prison officials will be indemnified by the state if the verdict stands. The prisoner was serving a 2-to-4-year sentence in 1996 at Riker’s Island when he informed officials of a murder plot by members of a street gang. His cooperation on the murder plot led the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office to recommend that his sentence be reduced to 64 days. Two years later, he was found guilty of another crime, attempted murder. He was sentenced to 20 years to life by Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Herbert Lipp. At sentencing, Legal Aid defense lawyer Joseph Miller said his client’s life would be in danger unless he was assigned to a different cell block and kept away from members of the street gang. Judge Lipp agreed to contact the Department of Correctional Services and warn them that the man’s life might be in jeopardy. Miller also wrote the department, and the prisoner made several requests on his own. Shortly after arriving at Sing Sing, the prisoner was temporarily forced to buy his safety by paying money to gang members. When he could no longer pay, he was attacked with a razor blade and, according to Kerson, nearly bled to death. During trial on his civil rights action before Judge McKenna, Kerson said his goal was to show indifference to the welfare of prisoners by ignoring requests to segregate them based on gang affiliation. The judge had made a key pretrial ruling that Commissioner Goord and the Sing Sing official, William Connolly, could be sued in their individual capacity for a policy whereby inmates are randomly assigned to cell blocks. “The commissioner’s position is that the judge was wrong on the law and the facts and in the charge to the jury,” said Corrections Department spokesman Jim Flateau. “As a result, we will appeal.” Flateau said that former Commissioner Thomas A. Couglin III, who served in the post from 1979 to 1994, “had on a couple of occasions been cited in his individual capacity, but in each of those cases, we successfully appealed the judgments, as we expect to do here.” Kerson said that Goord, by closed-circuit television, and Deputy Superintendent Connolly, in person, testified that it was prison policy not to inquire into the circumstances of a prisoner’s background before assigning a cell. The reason offered in defense of the policy, Kerson said, was that the Department of Corrections does not want officers playing favorites or being accused of prejudice in cell assignments. Kerson called Judge Lipp, who is retired, to testify that he remembered the sentencing of the man and his promise to warn prison officials about the danger. Legal Aid’s Miller, Kerson said, produced the letter he wrote warning the department. The jury found Connolly and Goord had conspired to violate the prisoner’s constitutional rights and were negligent in protecting him from harm. In addition to punitive damages, the jury ordered Goord to pay $100,000 and Connolly $50,000 in compensatory damages. The punitives were $5 million for Goord and $2.5 million for Connolly. Kerson said he has been unable to discover a case where punitive damages of this size have been awarded against “high-ranking” prison officials. Kerson was an assigned counsel in Queens from 1982 until 1996, when, he said, his anger at the level of violence in New York’s prisons prompted him to begin filing suits on behalf of inmates who had been assaulted where a change in prison policy might have made a difference. He brought 37 suits in federal court and combined the bulk of them before Judge Victor Marrero. The vast majority of those cases were dismissed by the judge or the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, he said, because the prisoner plaintiffs had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. Last week’s case was not among them, because in March, Judge McKenna found that the inmate had pursued prison grievance procedures to exhaustion — although the judge noted that he expects the 2nd Circuit to clarify the already heavily litigated exhaustion requirement. In most cases, the commissioner is dismissed from the proceedings early on because neither prison policy nor Corrections Department policy is at issue. High-ranking supervisors must be shown to have participated personally in the constitutional violation and cannot be held liable for violations committed by their subordinates, leaving what Kerson called a “he-said, she-said” trial about what happened on the prison floor. But McKenna found that the prisoner had adequately pleaded a claim for supervisor liability under 42 U.S.C. 1983, a decision that allowed the inmate to claim that Goord and Connolly could be held personally responsible. Kerson said he has had three clients killed while in prison. He said that “the beatings, stabbing and rapes must stop now or we will teach every lawyer in this country how to do what we did and make it financially impossible to run an unconstitutional prison.” Susan Hill Odessky, assistant attorney general who represented the state, moved that McKenna set aside the verdict. Kerson said that one “big issue” facing McKenna is the co-called Son of Sam Law, which prevents inmates from benefitting from their crimes. Under the law, crime victims or their families may sue to recover the proceeds an inmate earns from books or movies about their crimes. The law was later expanded to allow victims to hold criminals financially accountable regardless of their source of wealth. Kerson said he thinks his client cannot be precluded from keeping this recovery under the Son of Sam law because, in this case, “he is the victim of a crime.”

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