No Immunity for Guard After Prison-Bus Killing

     (CN) – Restoring a jury’s finding of gross negligence, a Maryland appeals court denied immunity to a corrections officer who “didn’t see anything” when an inmate murdered a fellow prison feet away from him.
     The attack happened on a prison bus transporting five corrections officers and 36 inmates to prison from Washington County Circuit Court before dawn on Feb. 2, 2005.
     Most of the inmates were bound for Hagerstown Correctional Institution, but four of the inmates were serving sentences at the supermax prison that houses Maryland’s most violent offenders, the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center.
     They had gone to court because one of them, Kevin Johns Jr., was being sentenced for killing his cellmate, and the others were testifying on his behalf.
     It was on the bus ride back to prison that Johns murdered one of his witnesses, Philip Parker Jr., purportedly because Parker had told the court that Johns was “paranoid,” “very easily irritated and agitated,” and had “a really, really short temper.”
     Two guards later testified about telling remarks at the sentencing hearing from Johns, who before he murdered his cellmate and Parker was in prison for killing his uncle.
     They said he began laughing after he got the second life sentence, saying “the killing has just begun.”
     Neither guard reported the remarks prior to Parker’s murder.
     A July 24 ruling from the Maryland Court of Appeals notes several other procedural flaws that Johns exploited to kill Parker on the bus.
     Each supermax prisoner was supposed to have two guards assigned to him on the bus for example, but there were just five guards for the whole bus.
     Supermax prisoners are also supposed to sit in the front of the bus, caged where possible, but Johns sat in the back of the bus, right in front of an elevated cage where two guards sat.
     Parker sat on the bench in front of Johns, whose three-point restraints were not securely fastened.
     Since the waist chain on Johns’ restraints was loose, and the guard whose duty it was to check the restraints didn’t realize as much, Johns was able to move his hands away from his body, choke out Parker and then cut his throat with a razor blade someone had smuggled onto the bus.
     Parker’s parents, Melissa Rodriguez and Philip Parker Sr., sued Maryland, its prison system, the supermax warden and the five correctional officers on the bus.
     Larry Cooper, the officer in charge on the bus, had been in the rear elevated cage behind, just 7 feet away from the murder scene.
     Like the other guards, he claimed not to have seen anything during the predawn attack. Two of the officers were fired and two others were reprimanded. Cooper was to be fired as well, but he chose to retire.
     A jury ruled for Parker’s parents against the state and against all but one of the corrections officers, awarding $18.5 million in damages.
     The trial judge set the verdict against the officers aside, however, striking the finding that Cooper was grossly negligent and finding that the officers were immune from liability. The court also reduced the plaintiffs’ award to $600,000.
     The Maryland Court of Special Appeals later reversed part of that decision, finding that Cooper was grossly negligent and not immune from their lawsuit.
     The Maryland Court of Appeals upheld the ruling on July 24.
     “Cooper, the officer responsible for protecting Parker and all of the inmates on the bus, sat several feet away while Parker was systematically choked to death and had his throat cut; and Cooper took no action whatsoever,” Judge Shirley Watts wrote for the court.
     The ruling emphasizes that Cooper was sitting in a raised cage designed to give him a full view of the bus.
     “Whether Cooper was asleep, or watching and not performing his duty,” Watts wrote, “under the circumstances described above, his failure to perform his duty to protect Parker constituted gross negligence.”
     In a case of first impression, Watts held on behalf of the court that “gross negligence is an exception to public official immunity.”

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