January 27, 2006
NASHVILLE — Two ex-Wilson County Jail guards are behind bars after being convicted in a conspiracy of brutal prisoner beatings, one facing a possible life sentence and the other unexpectedly jailed in a violent coda to their emotion-filled federal court trial.
Convicted were ex-Sgt. Patrick Marlowe and former guard Shane Conatser, while a third co-defendant, former guard Robert Locke, was acquitted of all charges.
Marlowe was found guilty of seven of eight charges against him while Conatser was found guilty of participating in the conspiracy and acquitted on charges of assault and civil rights deprivation.
Locke attorney Ed Yarbrough said his client was "obviously pleased" with the verdict "especially in light of the other cases."
"We understand it was difficult at times for the jury to differentiate between the other defendants, and certainly we appreciate the effort they put into it, in looking through it and seeing that Robert Locke never did anything wrong," Yarbrough said. "We're just very, very pleased."
Marlowe — depicted during the 12-day trial as the thug-like leader of a bloody, bone-crunching "brotherhood" of violence-loving guards — stared straight ahead as the verdict was announced while a woman in the spectator's section of the small courtroom collapsed in loud, choked sobs as he was led away in handcuffs by federal marshals. A small boy nearby burst into tears and hugged Marlowe's father, educator and county commissioner Wendell Marlowe, as his son was taken into custody.
Under federal court guidelines, defendants facing substantial sentences must be taken into custody immediately. U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell allowed Conatser to remain free until his May sentencing hearing, though his freedom proved to be stunningly short-lived.
Conatser provided a shocking exclamation point to the trial when he punched a wall in a courthouse hallway, damaging it slightly and resulting in his immediate arrest.
The ex-jailer was then rushed in handcuffs and shackles back to the same courtroom Campbell had allowed him to leave moments earlier, tearfully begging for his freedom.
His hands trembling in his cuffs and sobbing loudly, tears lining his face, Conatser apologized and told the judge "I was once a proud officer and now I'm in all this trouble … I'm not a violent person."
Standing before the judge as a convicted felon of only a few minutes, Conatser added, "My family is destroyed. It won't happen again. I'm really sorry … I don't remember doing it. I'm sorry."
Earlier his attorney, Phil Davidson, told the judge Conatser seemed to "let his emotions get the best of him" due to his wife's tearful reaction to the verdict.
"He's not the kind of person that's violent. He just let his emotions get the best of him. He's never seen his wife in that shape before," the attorney said.
But Campbell was unimpressed, saying the incident showed Conatser "incapable of controlling his behavior" and going on to rule he "presents a danger to the safety of the community."
Conatser — who like his two co-defendants took the witness stand to deny any wrongdoing — was then led from the courtroom, his head down, a pair of marshals on either side of him.
Conatser, who faces up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines, will undergo a sentencing hearing May 13 as will Marlowe, who could be sentenced to life in prison.
The duo's convictions mean a total of eight former jailers now stand guilty of charges they beat prisoners or covered up the crimes by falsifying reports or denying medical care to their victims. The two-year conspiracy was unearthed in an 18-month U.S. Department of Justice investigation spurred by the January 2003 head injury death of inmate Walter S. Kuntz, 43, whose fatal injuries were equated with a fall from a multistory building or being ejected from a crashed vehicle during trial testimony.
Five of the eight were charged in the multicount indictment resulting in the trial, with two — former guards Gary Hale and Robert Ferrell — pleading guilty and testifying as prosecution witnesses in the hopes of gaining reduced sentences. Three of four other guards charged early in the probe also cooperated with prosecutors.
But so did guards not implicated during the lengthy investigation, together with their former colleagues using the witness stand to paint a portrait of Marlowe as the vicious, hard-punching leader of a group of brutal second-shift guards who reveled in routinely beating inmates and maintained a "knockout list" of prisoners thrashed into unconsciousness.
The centerpiece of the government's case — and the portion that leaves Marlowe contemplating life behind bars — was the death of Kuntz, vividly described from the stand by Hale and ex-jailer Chris Finley, who cooperated with investigators early in the probe and was never implicated.
Hale detailed his own beating of Kuntz at Marlowe's orders, describing striking the drunken prisoner in the temple as Marlowe had taught him while the victim's head "bounced" off a concrete cell wall. The large, bulky Hale — who at times grew briefly emotional on the stand — also testified Marlowe claimed to have earlier beaten the prisoner.
Finley then described witnessing Marlowe beat Kuntz, telling the jury he was "shocked" and grew so troubled by the prisoner's death that he became unable to sleep, finally approaching investigators on the advice of his mother. Finley also testified Marlowe — the supervisor of the jail's second shift — "met me at my car" when he arrived at work on the day following Kuntz's death urging him to take part in a cover up.
The trial also included numerous other often graphic accounts of prisoner beatings, including testimony of Marlowe boasting of beating a prisoner's face until it "felt like mush" and "bragging" of being able to punch another inmate unconscious "with just his left hand."
The trial also included sensational testimony of guards restraining prisoners while they were beaten by other guards, of three young inmates pulled from a cell one by one and beaten in a nearby hallway while the others listened in horror, and how a man was kicked in the head as he lay on his cell floor moments after being "cut down" following a suicide attempt.
Defense attorneys portrayed their clients as victimized and vulnerable by the jail's constantly overcrowded, understaffed conditions, comparing their jobs to those of soldiers during wartime.
Sheriff Terry Ashe, when contacted late Tuesday about the verdict, said simply, "We have policies and procedures, and we have to follow them."
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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January 27, 2006