WARSAW – When former Attica Correctional Facility inmate George Williams was told that three former corrections officers who were accused of viciously assaulting him in 2011 had taken a guilty plea and would never work in a state prison again, he broke down and cried tears of gratitude, a prosecutor said Monday.
“I think he was very happy, thankful and very surprised that they would actually take responsibility for their actions,” said Wyoming County First Assistant District Attorney Vincent A. Hemming.
But an official of a state prisoner advocacy group had some harsh criticism for the misdemeanor plea deal that allowed Sean Warner, Keith Swack and Matthew Rademacher to walk away from the assault case without spending a day in jail.
The three former Attica prison employees pleaded guilty to misdemeanors of official misconduct rather than face a jury trial in County Court on a much more serious charge of gang assault against Williams. Under the terms of the deal, the three men had to resign from their jobs with the state prison system, but a judge agreed to give them no jail time.
The three were accused of felony gang assault after allegedly beating and kicking Williams on the night of Aug. 9, 2011, breaking his shoulder, an eye socket and both ankles, and then cuffing his hands behind his back and hurling the crippled inmate down a flight of stairs.
The misdemeanor deal outraged Jack Beck, a project director and longtime investigator of prison abuse complaints for the not-for-profit Correctional Association of New York State.
Beck said that, in his view, the three former officers got off easily “and didn’t even have to admit that they harmed” Williams.
“I give credit to the state Corrections Department and to the prosecutor for pursuing this case, but I am very concerned about the message sent by the plea deal,” Beck told The Buffalo News on Monday afternoon. “That message is that you can nearly kill somebody, and the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll lose your job. You won’t do any jail time, and you walk away with a misdemeanor.
“The level of accountability is not commensurate with their actions,” Beck added. “If Mr. Williams had done to these officers one-tenth of what they are accused of doing to him, he would be doing 15 years to life. They get to walk away.”
District Attorney Donald G. O’Geen disagreed. He said the case is the first time in state history in which corrections officers have pleaded guilty to “a violent unauthorized act against an inmate while on duty.”
He said Williams, now 32, burst into tears after a prosecutor called to tell him that the three former officers had pleaded guilty and will never work in a state prison again.
The charge of gang assault, which could have put each of the men in prison for at least five years, was dropped. A charge that the men planted phony evidence – a razor blade they claimed to have seized from Williams – also was dropped.
In County Court, Swack and Rademacher admitted that they engaged in an “unauthorized exercise” in their role as public servants by using excessive force against Williams. Warner admitted that he engaged in an “unauthorized exercise” by taking a police baton home after the incident.
Plea deal ‘too good to pass up’
Prosecutors believe that Warner took the baton home to clean Williams’ blood off of it, Hemming said. Three batons used in the attack were displayed when prosecutors held a news conference Monday afternoon. But Warner’s attorney, Cheryl Meyers Buth, denied that her client had to clean any blood off of the baton.
The deal was defended by Buth, Joel L. Daniels and Norman P. Effman, the Buffalo attorneys who represented Warner, a former sergeant, and the two former officers who were charged with him.
“They paid a price,” said Daniels, who represents Swack. “They all had to quit jobs that had good salaries and good benefits, and they had to waive off 3½ years of back pay. … It wasn’t easy.”
State Corrections Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci, who heads the state prison system, said he accepted the resignations of the three former officers Monday morning. He said he has no tolerance for the “criminal actions” uncovered in this case and promised to “appropriately discipline any security staff who commit egregious acts of misconduct.”
Although the men resigned from their jobs and admitted to official misconduct, defense attorneys say they continue to deny most of the allegations made against them by Williams.
Williams, a New Jersey native who was serving time for grand larceny, contends that the three officers assaulted him after wrongly blaming him for a crude wisecrack that another prisoner had made to a corrections officer earlier in the day.
He said the officers came to his cell, dragged him outside, struck him dozens of times with fists, feet and an unknown hard object, and then cuffed his hands behind him and shoved him down a flight of stairs. Williams said the officers shoved him after he told them that he could not walk down the stairs because his ankles were severely injured in the beating.
“Most of what George Williams has said is fiction,” Daniels said. “Nobody shoved him down a flight of stairs. Nobody planted a weapon on him. The weapon was found in his waistband. The officers went to his cell to get him because he was reported to have a weapon in his cell. Another prisoner dropped the proverbial dime on him.”
According to O’Geen, the razor was sent to a crime laboratory for testing, and none of Williams’ DNA was found on the weapon.
If so many of Williams’ allegations are untrue, why didn’t the three defendants put their case before a trial jury?
“The deal became too good to pass up,” Daniels said.
“The key here was avoiding the risk of going to jail and avoiding the risk of having a felony conviction on your record. When you look at all the proof in this case, each side would have had obstacles to overcome if the case had gone to trial.”
And according to both Buth and Effman, the three former officers were deeply concerned about whether they would be safe if they returned to the prison – either as employees or inmates.
Warner, 39, of Belfast; Rademacher, 31, of Wyoming; and Swack, 39, of Corfu, all declined to comment when approached by a reporter from The News after their appearance before County Judge Michael M. Mohun. Dressed in suits and ties, each of the men solemnly answered “yes” when asked if they had engaged in official misconduct.
The state Corrections Department suspended the three men without pay several days after the alleged attack on Williams in early August 2011.
Union decries assaults by inmates
Officials of the union that represents more than 18,000 corrections officers and sergeants issued a statement after Monday’s court action, stating that assaults by inmates on corrections employees are escalating “at a record pace.”
“Although this matter has been resolved in court, our members continue to be assaulted at a record pace,” said Mike Dildine, western regional vice president of the state Corrections Officers and Police Benevolent Association. “It is our sincere hope that prosecutors will protect those who protect us by prosecuting these violent criminals who attack correction officers.”
O’Geen said that his office has prosecuted numerous inmates for attacks on officers and that, in his experience, the vast majority of officers are honest and hardworking. The investigation would have benefited from more and better surveillance cameras in the Attica prison, O’Geen said.
Efforts by The News to reach Williams and his attorneys in the federal case were unsuccessful after the plea deal was finalized.
Based on his 30 years of experience investigating inmate complaints, Beck said he believes Williams’ account of what happened, and not the denials of the three former officers. Beck said the most unusual aspect of the case was that prosecutors and state prison officials took the prisoner’s allegations so seriously and did not cover them up.
Bloody history at Attica prison
Allegations that prisoners are beaten by corrections officers, and thrown down stairs with their hands cuffed behind them, “are not even unusual, in my experience,” Beck said.
Two additional felony charges of offering a false instrument were dropped against Warner, the sergeant, who was accused of filing two false reports on the incident with his superiors.
The high-security correctional facility in Attica has been one of America’s most infamous prisons since September 1971, when the bloodiest prison uprising in U.S. history took place there. On Sept. 9, nearly 1,300 prisoners seized control of the prison, took dozens of hostages and held authorities at bay for four days before state police and corrections officers stormed the prison Sept. 13, and 10 hostages and 29 inmates died, mostly from police gunfire. Federal court litigation over the riot and the retaking of the prison went on for decades.
Forty years after the rebellion, the Correctional Association of New York conducted an extensive study and issued a statement alleging that conditions at Attica were still terrible. In late 2011, the organization called on the state to close the prison.
The organization still feels strongly that the Attica prison should be closed, Beck said Monday. No substantial improvements have been made to address the problems of violence at Attica since 2011, he said.
According to state records, Williams was released in January 2012 after serving more than three years in prison for grand larceny. His federal lawsuit alleges that he still suffers from his injuries and also has nightmares related to the 2011 incident.
O’Geen thanked the Corrections Department, its inspector general’s staff, State Police and especially State Police Investigator Darryl D. O’Shei for their work on the case.
According to defense lawyers, all three of the former officers have “moved on” with their lives since their suspensions in 2011. Rademacher works in a factory, and Warner and Swack work in construction, they said.
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