(CN) - Citing improper jury instructions, the 9th Circuit threw out a jury verdict Tuesday against a man who says California prison officials roughed him up.
Adonai El-Shaddai, also known as James Wilkerson, says the altercation occurred while he was in the law library at High Desert State Prison under the escort of two guards so that he could make copies of his legal documents.
When Officer Bobby Wheeler and Lt. Nickolus Albonico allegedly tried to take El-Shaddai back to his cell, the inmate says he told them that he wanted to wait for his documents and that he needed to use a stapler located in another office.
The officers viewed it as resistance when El-Shaddai began to walk away from them, so they tackled the inmate and restrained him with help from a third officer.
The officers testified that El-Shaddai was kicking and twisting while they were trying to restrain him. At some point, the prisoner yelled out that his leg was broken.
El-Shaddai was eventually written up for willfully resisting an officer and found guilty at a disciplinary hearing. State habeas corpus proceedings upheld that outcome.
Meantime, a federal judge sent El-Shaddai's pro se civil lawsuit against Wheeler and Albonico to trial.
The 9th Circuit noted Tuesday that a jury eventually received instructions from the judge that "i[t] is established that plaintiff resisted defendant Wheeler, and that plaintiff was disciplined by prison officials for that resistance. Plaintiff does not seek to expunge that disciplinary record and you are directed to assume that disciplinary record will remain unchanged."
Though the jury ruled for the officers on all claims, the 9th Circuit found that the jury instructions regarding El-Shaddai's disciplinary record were given in error.
The ruling notes that the jury instruction stemmed from the trial court's belief that a jury finding of excessive force would undermine the prison-disciplinary decision and thereby violate Heck v. Humphrey, a 1994 Supreme Court decision.
Noting that El-Shaddai is serving life, however, the 9th Circuit emphasized that Heck does not bar claims where the duration of an inmate's sentence is not at stake.
"Any loss of good-time credits could not extend his potential term, which is life in prison," Judge Ronald Gould wrote for a three-person panel. "Further, as the California Attorney General's office argued in El-Shaddai's habeas corpus proceedings challenging the prison disciplinary action, the loss of good-time credits for a prisoner, such as El-Shaddai, whose date at which he is initially eligible for parole has already passed, does not affect the length of sentence."
The appellate court also found the instruction misleading and said it harmed El-Shaddai's case.
The instruction "was in tension with El-Shaddai's trial testimony in a way that likely confused the jury," Gould wrote.
During trial, El-Shaddai said that he did not refuse the officer, but rather he told him he was not going to leave without his material.
"Even if, as defendants contend, El-Shaddai's statements that he did not immediately obey the officer constitute resistance under the relevant California penal regulations, the instruction that El-Shaddai did resist and was disciplined for that resistance, without clarifying for the jury that resistance need not be physical, posed a severe risk of prejudice," Gould said.
The court's instruction may have misled the jurors into thinking that they should not believe El-Shaddai's testimony, either in whole or in part, according to the ruling.
"Because his own testimony was the central component of El-Shaddai's case, the likelihood of prejudice here is difficult to overcome," Gould wrote. "El-Shaddai testified that he was handcuffed and in waist restraints in the library. There was no evidence that El-Shaddai tried to assault any of the officers or posed a similar physical threat. The jury, without the instruction that El-Shaddai resisted the officers, or even with that instruction if it had been adequately clarified on the nature of his 'resistance,' might well have decided that the force used against El-Shaddai was excessive."
Though the trial court had previously granted summary judgment to Sgt. Gary Turner, the guard who joined Wheeler and Albonico in restraining El-Shaddai, the 9th Circuit reversed on this point as well.
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