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Inmate acquitted of guard assault

Jury accepts self-defense argument

By Milton J. Valencia TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF

This is an outrage. They have now opened the door for inmates to assault more officers.
Steve Kenneway,
MASSACHUSETTS CORRECTION OFFICERS FEDERATED UNION PRESIDENT

WORCESTER- A 12-person jury in Superior Court has acquitted a county jail inmate on charges he beat a correction officer, infuriating the correction community and creating fear it could set a precedent allowing inmates to attack jail staff.

"This is an outrage," said Steve Kenneway, president of the 4,600-member Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union. "They have now opened the door for inmates to assault more officers."

Johnathan Sanchez, 25, was found not guilty on two counts of assault and battery on a correction officer in the Dec. 14, 2002, fight at the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction in West Boylston. The fight left one officer unconscious and required him to undergo surgery for a fractured jaw and eye socket. The jury deliberated for about two hours before rendering a verdict Tuesday.

Lt. Robert Tatro, who claimed he was sucker-punched by Mr. Sanchez, said yesterday that the incident changed his life, putting him out of work for 2-1/2 years, causing him financial loss and a setback in his career. He said jurors never saw the Mr. Sanchez who allegedly spit in a correction officer's face while leaving court after the first day of trial.

"I wish they could have known that," Lt. Tatro said. "This case sets a dangerous precedence that you can hit a corrections officer and get away with it."

However, Mr. Sanchez's lawyer said yesterday that the case, while tragic, doesn't set a precedent, and it wouldn't have even if the jury decided his client was guilty. He said each case is decided on its own merits, and the jury sided with Mr. Sanchez's claim that he acted in self-defense.

"If an inmate attacks a corrections officer, and the jury is convinced, there would be punishment," said lawyer Timothy W. Murphy of Leominster.

On the night of the incident, Lt. Tatro was transporting Mr. Sanchez to the J Block, a segregation unit, after he and another inmate became unruly and disruptive in the main, maximum-security section of the jail. There had been a fight in that unit in which another inmate, Wayne Laferriere, assaulted three guards. Mr. Laferriere, 28, pleaded guilty to three counts of assault and battery on the correction officers and was sentenced to three concurrent terms of 1 to 2 years in state prison.

When Mr. Laferriere was finally subdued, correction officers ordered Mr. Sanchez and another unruly inmate to be moved to the segregation unit because they were disruptive. While in the unit's receiving area, Mr. Sanchez punched Lt. Tatro in the face when the officer bent over to pick up clothing, knocking him unconscious, according to court records. Lt. Tatro underwent several surgeries for facial fractures, including to his eye socket.

Another officer, Eric O'Connor, also was injured while subduing Mr. Sanchez, resulting in the second charge of assault and battery on a correction officer.

Mr. Murphy said yesterday that Mr. Sanchez claimed self-defense, saying he was threatened by Lt. Tatro. The Telegram & Gazette did not cover the trial.

Mr. Murphy said Mr. Sanchez testified in the trial, and that he said he felt threatened by Lt. Tatro's hands, his body posture and language, and the tone of his voice

"He struck before he was struck," Mr. Murphy said, reciting Mr. Sanchez's testimony. He also said Mr. Sanchez claimed, and that Mr. Laferriere confirmed in his own testimony in the case, that a correction officer told Mr. Sanchez when he was unruly to shut up or he would receive the same treatment as Mr. Laferriere. Mr. Sanchez told the jury he felt threatened by the officer's remarks that he would be treated the same as the other inmate, and so he acted in self-defense.

Mr. Murphy said Lt. Tatro's injuries were a horrible, tragic outcome, but stressed "the jury made its own determination on what it thought precipitated" the punch.

District Attorney John J. Conte, whose office prosecuted the case, said through a spokeswoman that he does not comment on jury verdicts.

Mr. Kenneway, whose union doesn't represent the lieutenant but said he was speaking on behalf of all correction officers, said the self-defense argument was ludicrous, and that it was the most "unacceptable bunch of garbage ever bought by a jury."

He said prosecutors should have brought the jurors to the jail, to show them the climate of what he has repeatedly said is an overcrowded, understaffed facility, and to see the challenges correction officers face.

Now, he said, inmates can hit officers and "roll the dice" in front of a jury with a self-defense claim. "He sucker-punches one of my officers and claims self-defense?" Mr. Kenneway said. "Give me a break."

Mr. Sanchez is also facing an assault and battery charge for an alleged attack on another inmate in June 2002.

Thats unreal
 
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