Longer Stretch for Prison Guards in Brutality Case
(CN) - Two prison guards convicted of beating young prisoners with broomsticks and covering up the attack did not deserve sentencing leniency, the 11th Circuit ruled.
The incident at issue occurred on Feb. 25, 2009, after a fight broke out in the youthful offender wing of the South Florida Reception Center in Doral, Fla., where all inmates are under the age of 21.
Marvin Woods sustained a head injury in the fight, but he and other inmates refused to tell correction officers his assailant.
Correction officer Alexander McQueen then snapped a broomstick in half and whacked Woods' legs with it.
Officer Guruba Griffin then asked the assembled inmates if anyone wanted to fight. One prisoner, Branden Pressley, volunteered to fight with inmate Juedline Bertrand. The prisoners were required to box, not to wrestle, and the guards hit or slapped the violator when one of them broke the rules.
When Pressley begged the officer to stop the fight, McQueen choked Pressley and forced him to keep fighting.
After the fight ended, Bertrand sucker-punched Pressley, and McQueen then attacked Bertrand with a broomstick. Griffin choked Bertrand with two hands, long enough to knock Bertrand unconscious.
Griffin, McQueen and a third officer, Scott Butler, proceeded to beat three other inmates with broomstick halves, while officer Steven Dawkins watched.
Although between 20 and 25 prisoners witnessed the beatings, only one complained for fear of reprisal.
A federal grand jury eventually charged the four guards with violating the prisoners' civil rights. Butler and Griffin's case was split because the court found some evidence relevant only to McQueen and Dawkins.
At trial, prison officials testified that the prisoners' injuries were visible for days after the attacks, and that McQueen and Dawkins' reports about the violence that day either did not mention or gave another account for the inmates' injuries.
A jury found McQueen guilty of conspiring to deprive inmates of their Eighth Amendment rights, and McQueen and Dawkins both guilty of obstruction of justice. On these convictions, McQueen faced a maximum of 35 years in prison, and Dawkins faced 20 years.
A separate jury meanwhile declared a mistrial on the charges against Griffin. The guard then pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, exposing him to a maximum sentence of only one year in jail.
At sentencing for McQueen and Dawkins, the trial count said it could not, in good conscience, sentence these two officers to far heavier prison terms than Griffin.
It ultimately sentenced McQueen to two years in prison, and Dawkins to one month.
A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit concluded Thursday that the sentencing was unreasonable.
"The sentencing guidelines recommended a sentence of at least one-hundred-and-fifty-one months for McQueen and a sentence of at least fifteen months for Dawkins; yet the district court dramatically lowered the sentences for both of them," Judge Stanely Marcus wrote for the Atlanta-based panel. "McQueen was sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment, a drop of one-hundred-and-thirty-nine months and a reduction of some 92 percent from the bottom of his guidelines range. And Dawkins was sentenced only to one month in prison, a drop of 93 percent from the low end of his recommended sentence. By any fair measure, these are 'major' variances."
The only reason the trial court gave for this major variance was the disparity of Griffin's sentence with those facing Dawkins and McQueen, according to the ruling.
"The District Court concluded that Dawkins and McQueen were 'similarly situated' to Griffin, but that conclusion is not at all clear to us," Marcus wrote. "McQueen was found guilty by a jury of feloniously violating several criminal statutes; and Dawkins was convicted of obstructing justice too. A different jury, which heard evidence specific to Griffin, did not find Griffin guilty of violating anything. It was unable to reach a verdict and a mistrial was declared. Unlike McQueen and Dawkins convictions, Griffin was never convicted by anyone of any felony; rather, he entered a plea agreement, and, most dissimilarly from McQueen and Dawkins, his crime of conviction was only a misdemeanor."
Marcus noted that the appellate opinion does "not suggest what the sentence should be; nor do we intimate that no variance is justified. We simply hold that downward variances of more than 90 percent where one corrections officer brutalized more than five young prisoners and then lied about it, and another intentionally sought to conceal these serious crimes are unreasonable."