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Ex-jailer recounts 'jailhouse justice'
Jan 16, 2006 12:00 am
January 14, 2006
NASHVILLE — A former Wilson County Jail guard graphically described beatings that allegedly killed a prisoner while testifying about the bloody, bone-shattering 'jailhouse justice" routinely dished out by three ex-jailers standing trial on conspiracy charges.
Former Cpl. Gary Hale seemed to hold a U.S. District Court jury riveted as he described how he and the leader of the alleged conspiracy, ex-Sgt. Patrick Marlowe, administered separate beatings to Walter S. Kuntz, 43, during his January 2003 stay in the jail on charges stemming from a drunken driving accident.
Kuntz died days later of what has been described as 'trauma-related brain injuries," launching an 18-month investigation which resulted in charges against Marlowe and co-defendants Shane Conatser and Robert Locke.
Hale and a fifth former guard — Robert Ferrell — were also indicted as co-conspirators but both pleaded guilty in exchange for their cooperation with prosecutors, who have agreed to recommend reduced sentences.
Despite the drama of Hale's descriptive account of the now-infamous altercations with Kuntz, he also unleashed sensational accounts of other beatings, including one which left a prisoner's face like 'mush" and another incident in which three inmates were systematically 'pulled" from a cell and beaten as punishment.
Like earlier ex-guards turned government witnesses, he also testified about a running 'knockout list" Marlowe maintained of inmates he had beaten unconscious, saying the final count apparently stood at 21.
Hale's emotions appeared to surface briefly at one point during his long recitation of the events surrounding the seemingly fatal beatings — compared by prosecutors to a case of second-degree murder — his voice breaking briefly and later appearing to wipe tears from his eyes.
Hale testified Kuntz was in custody when he arrived for his shift at the jail and Marlowe 'had already entered the cell once," claiming he had 'struck Mr. Kuntz two or three times in the side of the head."
He testified when noise was heard from Kuntz's cell Marlowe told him 'to go take care of it," telling the jury that meant 'go in and whip his (explicative) and do whatever it takes to take care of it."
Several jurors seemed to lean forward slightly as Hale described entering the cell, testifying Kuntz was seated on a bench and 'backed up a little bit."
'I struck Mr. Kuntz two or three times in the side of the head," Hale said.
Under questioning by prosecutors, Hale described how Kuntz's head 'bounced off the wall" with 'a thumping noise."
When asked why he struck the prisoner, the big, burly ex-guard replied, 'Because I was told to."
He said Kuntz was 'still on the bench" as he left the cell, reporting to Marlowe that he'd 'taken care of it."
Less than two hours later when he returned to the cell with arrest warrants taken out against Kuntz, Hale said the prisoner was 'laying on the floor."
'He (Kuntz) just looked at me," Hale testified.
After two more hours passed, Kuntz was found 'laying on the bench passed out and he had vomited on himself," the ex-guard told the jury.
Hale testified he 'got a mop, a bucket and a rag" and 'cleaned him up" with Kuntz showing no signs of consciousness.
The ex-guard answered 'no sir" nine times when asked if he or Marlowe summoned medical help for the prone prisoner.
At 9 p.m. Kuntz 'still hadn't moved," Hale testified.
'He was still laying on his side and I noticed he had vomited on himself again," he told the court. 'I cleaned him up again."
He testified he and Marlowe 'shook him, patted him on the back" and even 'poured a bucket of water on him" with no response from Kuntz.
The two corrections officers then used 'sniffing salts" in an effort to revive Kuntz only to see that 'when we put them under his nose he would quit breathing and when we would take them away he would start back up."
Finally, after 10 p.m., Hale contacted his father, judicial commissioner David Hale, a former Wilson Emergency Management Agency director who recommended an ambulance be summoned.
Hale said he accompanied Kuntz to the hospital and was told a short while later by physicians the prisoner was 'brain dead."
Hale testified he was then joined at the hospital by Marlowe, who 'told me that we were going to have to write reports to cover everything so it wouldn't come back on us."
Later, when the two became aware an investigation was being launched into the death, Marlowe urged him to take part in a cover-up, Hale testified.
'He said just to stick to the story, and it would be all right," Hale said.
He also echoed earlier testimony from another ex-guard charged in the probe that Marlowe labeled co-worker Christopher Finley — who apparently cooperated with investigators in the probe — 'a snitch."
'He (Marlowe) said that we shouldn't have got him on second shift, because he was going to get us in trouble," Hale testified.
Marlowe's defense attorney on cross-examination quickly coaxed an admission from Hale that he was unsure of the exact cause of Kuntz's death, saying he was unaware of a prior medical condition from which the prisoner suffered and was unsure if he may have had any prior injuries when he was jailed.
'You don't know what caused his death, do you?" defense attorney Bo Taylor asked.
'No sir, I don't," Hale answered.
Taylor as well as attorneys for Locke and Conatser also strongly suggested Hale embellished his story to impress prosecutors and win a lighter sentence. Prosecutors are expected to recommend a sentence of eight years for Hale, who could have faced life in prison as originally charged — a grim prospect which remains in place for Marlowe.
Before recounting his fateful encounter with Kuntz, U.S. Department of Justice special prosecutor Gerrard Hogan led Hale through several accounts of jailhouse brutality, all of them centering on Marlowe, whom he testified beat prisoners 'numerous times" in his presence.
Hale admitted he also beat prisoners 'numerous times when I was there" before Hogan asked him why.
'It was jailhouse justice, I guess," Hale responded.
He said he and the other co-defendants 'would go into the cell and beat them up, hit them, kick them, whatever we had to do" at the direction of Marlowe, who he testified had preferred target areas when it came to an inmate's body.
'He said to hit them in the temple area, because that was the knockout point," Hale testified of his former supervisor.
Marlowe and Hale are the two highest ranking ex-guards charged in the case.
Hale also calmly described how — after Conatser once broke his knuckle striking an inmate — Marlowe became angry over the injury and hit the prisoner 'in the face two or three times."
'The second or third blow his face crushed," Hale testified. 'He (Marlowe) said it felt like mush."
He said when three prisoners became embroiled in an altercation among themselves inside a cell, Marlowe was quick to issue an order.
'He said that if three of them whipped one, then three of us was going to whip one of them," Hale testified.
With that, the prisoners were 'pulled" from the cell and beaten one by one, Hale told the court.
Hale testified he and other guards had a clear understanding of what Marlowe meant when ordered to 'handle" or 'take care" of a prisoner.
'It meant to whip his (explicative)," Hale testified.
Like others, he testified Marlowe would frequently pull on a pair of black leather gloves before handing out a beating, claiming some other co-defendants also sported gloves, despite orders to the contrary from superiors.
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at email@example.com.