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County may have to pay woman in rape case

A Buffalo woman who was raped by a sheriff's deputy while under detention in 2002 may be poised to win a $500,000 civil case against Erie County.

That's because a jury ruled three years ago that policies at the Erie County Holding Center led to an atmosphere that made rape by a prison guard nearly inevitable. Although a jury verdict was overturned by a U.S. magistrate, an appeals court ruled last week in favor of the woman.

In December 2002, Marchon C. Hamilton was a guard at the Holding Center on Delaware Avenue.

On December 19, he led a group of female inmates to the recreation center, but asked one to stay behind. He put his hand over her mouth, dragged her into the guards' bathroom and raped her.

Hamilton pleaded guilty to third-degree rape in 2003. He could have faced jail time but was instead given 10 years of probation.

That same year, the victim sued the county and then-Sheriff Patrick Gallivan for $2.5 million.

A jury in 2008 awarded the woman $500,000, but the verdict was set aside by a U.S. magistrate who argued that the case lacked key evidence.

Last week, the 2nd Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed that decision.

A previous incident involving sexual misconduct at the Holding Center showed the county was at fault for Hamilton's actions, the woman's attorney argued to the appeals court.

An internal investigation found that, in 1999, a detainee was exposing herself to guards -- and perhaps doing even more than that -- in exchange for cigarettes and other gifts.

Writing for the majority, Circuit Judge Reena Raggi said a jury could have reasonably concluded the 1999 incident showed that rules alone about "sexual contact between guards and prisoners have proved an insufficient deterrent to sexual exploitation."

One guard was found responsible and the report recommended that he receive 30 days' suspension. The guard instead was given three days' suspension, and that came out of accrued vacation time.

"Basically [the county sheriff] seemed to have blown off what was going on, and at the same time, he blew off [the fact that] something else might happen," the rape victim's attorney, Eugene B. Nathanson, said in a phone interview Thursday from his Manhattan office.

The Holding Center's policy also allowed for male guards to escort female inmates without any other supervision. During the jury trial, Nathanson offered expert testimony saying that this was unusual in jails and prisons, given what can happen when a male guard has that much power over a female inmate.

Erie County Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman responded that the Holding Center's policy now requires male guards to escort male inmates and female guards to escort female inmates.

The case now must be reconsidered by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy. It was unclear late last week what the county's next move would be.

"All I can say right now is that we're evaluating our options," said Thomas F. Kirkpatrick of the County Attorney's Office.

This incident was just one in a series of incidents that may have led to an investigation into Erie County's correctional facilities by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2009. The Justice Department sued Erie County, demanding better conditions for inmates at the downtown holding center and the prison in Alden. Just this month, the feds agreed to drop the lawsuit if they were allowed to monitor both facilities for 18 months.