WARSAW – Three state prison corrections officers took misdemeanor plea deals and resigned from their jobs Monday rather than face trial on charges that they viciously and mercilessly beat a prisoner at the Attica Correctional Facility in August 2011.
Sgt. Sean Warner and Officers Keith Swack and Matthew Rademacher stood before a judge Monday morning and pleaded guilty just before jury selection was to begin in Wyoming County Court.
Under a plea deal worked out over the weekend with the Wyoming County district attorney’s office, the three long-suspended officers agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of official misconduct. All three have been promised they will get no jail time for the beating of prisoner George Williams.
The guilty pleas were accepted by Judge Michael M. Mohun.
But Warner, 39; Swack, 39; and Rademacher, 31, still face a possible non-criminal trial in Buffalo’s federal court, where Williams has filed a civil rights lawsuit.
Williams, 29, who was serving time for grand larceny, suffered a broken shoulder, two broken ankles and a broken eye socket when he was attacked without provocation by the three officers on Aug. 9, 2011.
Authorities said they believed this case was the first in state history in which the felony charge of gang assault was filed against corrections officers for an alleged attack on a prisoner.
According to the allegations in the federal lawsuit, the three officers attacked Williams because they mistakenly blamed him for yelling a crude insult at a corrections officer earlier in the day.
After repeatedly punching Williams, kicking him and striking him with an unknown hard object, the three officers ordered Williams to walk down a flight of stairs. When Williams told them he could not walk because his ankles were injured, the officers hurled him down the stairs, according to Williams, who said his hands were cuffed behind his back at that time.
In a highly unusual response to Williams’ complaint, prosecutors in Wyoming County obtained felony indictments for gang assault against the three officers.
In addition to assaulting Williams, the officers were accused of planting phony evidence – a razor blade they claimed to have seized from Williams – and Warner was accused of lying on two official reports he filed on the incident.
The attorneys for the three corrections officers – Joel L. Daniels, Cheryl Meyers Buth and Norman P. Effman – said their clients pleaded guilty because they want to put the controversy behind them. Buth said the three officers were concerned about their safety if they were found not guilty and returned to their jobs in the prison system.
“We felt we had a strong defense, and we were prepared to pick a jury today,” said Daniels, who represents Swack. “It’s been over three years, and our clients have moved on with their lives. This outcome allows us to avoid a felony conviction and put this case behind us.”
Buth, who represents Warner, said the defense attorneys felt it would be difficult for the three officers to go back to work at the prison “after all the publicity this case generated.”
“We were concerned the allegations made by this inmate may have jeopardized our clients’ safety and their ability to do their jobs,” Buth added.
The officers “appreciate the support” they have received from the union that represents state corrections officers, and the 18,000 officers and sergeants who work in the state’s prisons, said Effman, who is Rademacher’s attorney.
The officers’ decision to plead guilty and relinquish their jobs came as a surprise to some observers, who had expected a long, hard-fought trial.
All three officers turned down misdemeanor plea deals that were offered to them in January and as recently as Saturday. First Assistant District Attorney Vincent A. Hemming told The Buffalo News that the trial was going forward with jury selection Monday.
During an interview last month, a top official of the state officers’ union voiced strong support for Warner, Swack and Rademacher.
“(We) are confident that once all the facts are released, these officers will be exonerated of all charges,” said Mike Dildine, western regional vice president for the officers’ association, last month.
Dildine said violence by prisoners against corrections officers has risen “at an alarming rate” – from 577 assaults on staff in 2010 to 747 last year, an increase of nearly 30 percent.
Williams’ allegations were investigated by State Police and the Corrections Department inspector general’s office, which led to the grand jury indictments against the three suspended officers.
According to federal court papers, investigators spoke to numerous prisoners, corrections department employees and medical personnel about the beating.
One of the witnesses was a prisoner who told investigators that, after the beating, he was ordered by a corrections officer to clean up Williams’ blood from the floor.
And if anyone asked him about the blood, the prisoner said, he was ordered to say there was no blood.
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