State prison inmate Anthony Mann seems like the last person on earth to win a federal jury award of $8,100 for being treated badly by the S.C. Department of Corrections.
Mann, 36, of Charleston, is serving life without parole for two execution-style killings, made escape attempts, filed numerous complaints against the prison that were dismissed and has been cited for numerous disciplinary infractions since becoming an inmate in 2002.
But after a week-long trial in Columbia, a federal jury ruled that despite Mann’s record, he was – in one incident – the victim of unnecessarily brutal and unconstitutional treatment by prison guards at the Broad River Correctional Institution.
The trial also shone a light on the importance of video inside state prisons.
That incident, which happened in 2010, was supposed to have been videotaped by an extraction team that entered Mann’s cell to pull him out.
But the video wasn’t produced at trial. DOC lawyers argued it was inadvertently destroyed during the violent encounter with Mann; Mann’s lawyers argued it likely was destroyed deliberately or negligently by prison officials.
“The missing video – that was the key. We basically put the video on trial,” said Columbia attorney Xavier Starkes, who with attorney Stanley Myers represented Mann on a pro bono (unpaid) basis. “We emphasized the missing video in opening and closing arguments, and throughout our questioning of witnesses.”
Moreover, even though the jury knew Mann’s background, “Anthony made a very compelling witness, very passionate and sincere,” Starkes said.
Dan Settana, a private Columbia attorney who handles cases for the DOC, agreed jurors thought the video was crucial.
“They were unhappy about the video – we had the discs, but there was just nothing on the discs,” Settana said, speaking for himself and fellow attorney Janet Holmes. “The one juror we talked to said, ‘We wanted to send a message to the state about the importance of preserving the video,’” Settana said.
The jury was out more than 12 hours –from shortly before noon on Feb. 26 to about 10 minutes after 12 am on Feb. 27. The trial took five days and involved some 30 witnesses.
The jury was told that Mann barricaded himself in his cell, flooded his cell with water and soap so guards would slip, wrapped his ankles and wrists in cloth so guards couldn’t affix restraints to them, wore a makeshift gas mask to keep pepper spray out and then lobbed 15 plastic shampoo bottles filled with feces and urine at the guards when they finally did enter.
“The bottles filled with feces and urine exploded like water balloons because he had been storing them, and the gases built up pressure. He pelted the officers with them,” Settana said.
Jurors had one basic issue: to decide whether guards beat Mann with excessive force after they finally subdued him. He claimed he was unnecessarily and severely beaten after lying on the floor and telling guards he was giving up. The corrections officers testified that they restrained Mann without undue force and, once Mann was restrained, all physical force ended.
Mann suffered a one-inch long, quarter inch deep gash on his head.
“The officer who was videoing was covered in feces, and so was the camera,” Settana said. “We took the position that the video was destroyed when the feces got all over the camera.”
Mann’s legal team also scored a rare victory against U.S. Judge Richard Gergel of Charleston.
In 2013, Gergel, who had been assigned the Mann case, dismissed it, ruling there was not enough evidence to hold a trial.
At that point, a team of expert volunteer lawyers from the Georgetown University Law Center stepped in on the inmate’s behalf and appealed the case to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia.
In 2014, a three-judge Court of Appeals panel overruled Gergel, saying that “ample evidence” for a jury to find that guards “acted maliciously, sadistically and in violation of the Eighth (cruel and unusual punishment) Amendment.”
The case went back to Gergel for trial.
Although Mann’s initial complaint at first included numerous incidents involving 29 corrections officers, the jury during deliberations only considered three incidents involving eight officers. In the end, the jury only found against five officers in one incident, according to court records.
A prison spokeswoman said Tuesday that no corrections officers apparently received any sanctions over the incident the jury ruled on.
Since 2010, procedures involving videoing incidents with inmates have been revamped.
“We do have better equipment, and failures of video are a lot less likely to happen,” said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stephanie Givens.
For one thing, she said, in 2010, the DOC was using VHS videotapes; the department now uses digital video technology.
While Starkes and Myers represented Mann on an unpaid basis, their attorney fees – assuming the verdict holds up on any appeal – under court rules won’t be more than about $12,000, on top of the money they won for their client.
The shift in the public consciousness about law enforcement officers in violent situations was a major factor in the jury’s decision, Starkes said.
“There’s a major distrust of law enforcement in the country, especially with no video,” Starkes said.
The DOC has made no decision on whether to appeal, Settana said.