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Hale to spend nine years in prison
Jun 26, 2006 12:00 am
June 17, 2006 – NASHVILLE — Amid a packed courtroom tense with emotion, a trio of former Wilson County guards charged as part of a federal investigation into in jail learned their fates Friday in U.S. District Court.
The guards – former Cpl. Gary Hale, William Westmoreland and John McKinney – were sentenced Friday after pleading guilty late last year. The three men were charged in July 2004 following an 18-month federal civil rights investigation into prisoner abuse at the jail.
While each man entered into a guilty plea with prosecutors in exchange for lighter sentences, all three sought the lightest sentences possible before a federal district judge. Ultimately, Hale received nine years behind bars and his two counterparts were sentenced to probation.
Hearing from Kuntz's family
Dressed simply in khaki pants and blue shirt, Hale sat silently with his head bowed as the widow and sister of Walter S. Kuntz – the former inmate whose January 2003 head injury death spurred the federal probe – asked the judge to remember the ultimate price their brother and son paid at the hands of the jailers.
"In jail you expect to be protected. You expect to come out. You don't expect to be brain dead," said his widow Oletta Lynn Kuntz. "These so-called officers of the law played the role of judge, jury and in this case executioner. … These actions have forever shaken my faith and the faith of many others in the authority and ability of all law enforcement."
Hale, the second-highest ranking jailer charged in the federal indictment, along with former Sgt. Patrick Marlowe have for nearly three years been deemed the ring leaders of the "so-called jailhouse justice" and who kept oral "knockout lists" of inmates beaten unconscious at the hands of jail guards. In the indictment, prosecutors claimed guards carried out a two-year scheme to "injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate detainees and prisoners at the Wilson County Jail."
Hale, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges contained in the first count of an eight-count federal indictment handed down in July 2004, will serve nine years in federal prison followed by two years of supervised probation.
Kuntz's mother and sister sat sobbing with hands clenched as they awaited his sentence which was slightly reduced because of his cooperation with federal prosecutors and his role as a "key government witness."
Under his plea agreement, he could have received up to a 10-year sentence.
"I felt like it needed to be known," Hale said, taking long pauses during which he sniffed and sobbed. "It's truly laid on me what happened. There's nothing I can say or do to change anything now … I'm truly sorry … I put my mercy in your hands."
U.S. District Court Judge Todd Campbell, who presided over the sentencings, asked if he had told the truth of what he had done to which he answered "yes sir, I have."
Hale will have 30 days to get his affairs in order before reporting July 17 to as yet an undetermined federal institution.
"Obviously with his extensive cooperation we had hoped for less," Defense attorney Peter Strianse said. "We were pleased he was not exposed to the 30 years or so he could have been … It would not have been a good resolution. (The plea) was the correct decision."
Kuntz's sister Tanya Thompson, who said during proceedings, the sentence "cannot be heavy enough."
"I hope you think of Walter – we called him Steven – every day," she said. "It's something you'll have to live with on your heart. … "Yes, we're glad to have closure, but there's a hole in my family's heart that will never be filled."
Begging for his family's sake
Mere hours after Hale received his sentence, Westmoreland too learned his fate.
Westmoreland, who pleaded guilty to one count of civil rights violation, was charged in federal informations along with ex-jailers John McKinney, Travis Bradley and Chris McCathern during the first 12 months of the probe.
As his sentencing hearing began, Westmoreland and his family members awaiting the judge's decision were visibly emotional.
Defense attorney Gary Vandever called nine witnesses, including Westmoreland's father and brother, a friend who served with him in the Tennessee National Guard and his current boss among others. Each witness noted their belief in his honesty, trust and dependability. They also agreed Westmoreland had "learned his lesson" and was "sorry" for what happened.
"Your honor, I've called nine witnesses and I have more," Vandever said, noting they too would offer similar testimony. "I think to call more would belabor the court."
The lengthy string of witnesses was part of a plea for a reduced sentence. Westmoreland faced a sentence of 24-30 months in jail and two to three years probation.
"When the time was right, he stood up and did what was right," Vandever said. "He had the courage and conviction to stand up early. He made the case, I hesitate to say easier, for those who didn't stand up and testify."
In addition to his early cooperation, Vandever noted Westmoreland's unique family situation as an additional reason for a lighter sentence.
Westmoreland is the father of three small children, one of whom has a heart defect, and his wife is seven months pregnant.
"I'm asking for punishment where I can still be able to work and provide for my family," he said. "I've never been in trouble before … My wife and four kids will be out on the streets if I'm not there to provide."
His attorney also noted if incarcerated his family would lose health insurance provided by his employer.
"Without insurance they wouldn't get the treatment they need," he told the judge. "My whole world resolves around my wife and my kids."
In issuing his ruling, Campbell said he wanted a sentence that was "sufficient but not greater than necessary."
"A violation of civil rights – excessive force – versus false records. It's one line I've used in these cases," he said. "But his testimony was indeed very substantial … during fairly vigorous cross examination."
Campbell also cited Westmoreland's "unique family situation" in his substantially reduced sentence. He received three years probation with the first six months under house arrest.
"Oh yes, we're pleased," Vandever said. "We're turning cartwheels. As the judge said, probation is very rare in federal court. It's very, very rare."
Admitting his was wrong
John McKinney, who was charged in the same federal informations with Westmoreland and pleaded guilty to one count of misprison of a felony for falsifying a report, was sentenced Friday as well.
The judge questioned whether or not the light sentence would send a strong enough message to other law enforcement agencies regarding truthful reporting.
"I think publicity from this case has sent a healthy salutory effect on local law enforcement," defense attorney Travis Hawkins said.
"Although he didn't testify, he provided substantial assistance (to prosecutors)," U.S. Attorney Stephen Curran said. "We approached him late in the game; he was a fairly minor player."
McKinney spoke in his own defense noting the experience has "humbled" him and taught him to be responsible for his actions.
"I saw things I didn't agree with," McKinney said. "I prayed for people to be punished. Obviously, I didn't think I would have a part … I'm sorry for actions I participated in. I feel horrible about it.
"I'll always try to do the right thing, even if it means getting fired or else."
Campbell noted McKinney was "among the least culpable" in issuing his sentence of two years probation.
"The whole case is very sad," Hawkins said. "But John's a bright young man who can now move on with his life."
A total of eight former guards were ultimately charged or entered pleas as a result of the federal investigation. All but Marlowe – who faces up to life in prison – have received their sentences. He will learn his fate July 6.
Guards sentenced to date include: Brian Ferrell, 12 months in prison with two years probation; Travis Bradley, two years probation; Shane Conatser, six years in prison; and Chris McCathern, 44 months in prison with two years probation.
Features Editor Sherry Phillips can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 44 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.