January 21, 2006
NASHVILLE — An ex-Wilson County Jail guard on trial in an alleged conspiracy of prisoner beatings and cover-ups testified he saw high-ranking officers strike inmates and labeled a former co-worker turned government witness a coward.
Former guard Shane Conatser testified as the federal court trial entered its eighth day, becoming the second of three former guards on trial to take the stand in his own defense. A third co-defendant, Robert Locke, is expected to testify when the trial resumes Monday.
One day earlier, ex-Sgt. Patrick Marlowe — depicted as the conspiracy's brutal, hard-punching leader — also took the stand, steadfastly denying the many allegations of prisoner abuse against him, in particular claiming he could not have caused an inmate's 2003 head injury death.
That death, the apparent fatal beating of Walter S. Kuntz, 43, is the centerpiece of the government's case against the three, launching the 18-month U.S. Department of Justice investigation leading to the trial.
Conatser, who was not linked to the alleged beating of Kuntz, bluntly denied the assault charges against him and testified he was never part of a conspiracy to violate the civil rights of prisoners by beating them.
In denying the allegations, Conatser claimed he regularly saw others strike prisoners.
"Pretty well everybody I worked with," he testified.
Under questioning by his attorney, Conatser identified "Cpl. (Shawndra) Benford, Lt. (Eddie) Fitzpatrick, (former) Lt. (David) Hemontoler and Capt. (Cheryl) Henry." However, he did not specifically address whether the use of force was proper in the alleged incidents though he did say striking inmates was "not isolated."
During his stay on the witness stand, which consumed much of Friday's testimony, Conatser depicted former guard turned prosecution witness Travis Bradley — who pleaded guilty to related charges in the hopes of gaining a reduced sentence — as a frightened, less-than-trusted co-worker who once abandoned him during an altercation with a prisoner.
Bradley testified at length about a number of alleged incidents inside the jail, one of which involved Conatser breaking his knuckle while allegedly assaulting an inmate.
In denying his former co-worker's testimony, Conatser said Bradley would "stay as far away as possible" from brewing trouble inside the jail.
"He (Bradley) didn't belong in law enforcement … he was scared all the time," Conatser testified.
The former guard maintained he did not strike an inmate as Bradley testified and said his former co-worker could not have witnessed the incident as he claimed because he fled in fright.
During a fracas with an inmate, Conatser testified, Bradley "left me in the cell by myself" forcing him to "strike him (the prisoner) one time."
"I heard his (Bradley's) testimony and I have no idea what he was talking about," Conatser said from the witness stand.
He maintained he did not use excessive force in that incident and denied allegations that he falsified reports to aid in covering up prisoner beatings.
"I filled out the reports the way they taught me," he said, also denying earlier claims that reports were regularly sprinkled with "code words" to mask guard misconduct.
Conatser also came to Marlowe's defense, denying the existence of a much testified-about "knockout list" the former sergeant allegedly maintained of prisoners he had beaten unconscious.
"There was never any knockout list," he said, also brushing aside earlier testimony the co-defendants would regularly get together to boast of their beatings.
"I had nothing to brag about," he told the jury.
Rather than being co-conspirators in a criminal enterprise, Conatser testified, he and his second shift co-workers "were brothers" caught up in a highly stressful job which few outsiders could comprehend.
Any talk of altercations with inmates, he testified, was done in a "joking manner" as a way to relieve stress.
Of Marlowe, he said the man depicted by prosecutors and government witnesses as the violent leader of a brutal band of lawless guards was instead a "trusted" friend who "took me under his wing" and could be counted on in "a dangerous situation."
And when word spread Marlowe was under investigation in the death of Kuntz, Conatser testified, his former supervisor got in touch with him for only one reason.
"He wanted to make sure I knew he didn't do it," Conatser told the court.
But just as Marlowe was forced to do one day earlier under cross-examination, Conatser was forced to acknowledge time and time again the seemingly damaging testimony of the government's witnesses — including some ex-guards not implicated in the investigation — without offering an explanation for their allegations.
Under cross-examination by DOJ special prosecutor Stephan Curran, Conatser also found himself admitting discrepancies between his testimony and statements he gave to an FBI agent during the probe.
The trial appears to be rapidly nearing its conclusion with U.S. District Court Judge Todd Campbell indicating he expects closing arguments Tuesday. Jurors have remained impassive and businesslike during the trial, several taking notes.
However, several jurors appeared to lean forward in their seats as indicted co-conspirator Gary Hale described his beating of Kuntz and quoted Marlowe as saying he had also struck the prisoner two to three times.
The defense has utilized a variety of tactics to question the cause of Kuntz's death, introducing witnesses who claimed he was manhandled by Lebanon police and an expert who maintained the low-speed car crash which resulted in his arrest could have caused a fatal head injury.
But Hale testified guards dished out beatings such as the one which allegedly killed Kuntz as part of a pattern of "jailhouse justice" they employed with loud or unruly prisoners.
Hale and a second indicted co-conspirator seeking leniency, ex-guard Robert Ferrell, have portrayed Marlowe as the conspiracy's violent leader, testifying he relished beating inmates and regularly orchestrated falsifying reports to cover up the alleged crimes.
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Former guard: Officers struck inmates
January 21, 2006