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William Victor v. R.M. Lawler

May 10, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Carlson


I. Introduction

This case is a prisoner civil rights lawsuit lodged by the Plaintiff, William Victor, against correctional staff at SCI Huntingdon. In this lawsuit, Victor alleges that he was the victim of a staff assault at the prison in June of 2008. During this cell extraction Victor suffered a broken jaw.

This matter now comes before us for consideration of a request by Victor that the Court impose spoliation sanctions on the Defendants. Victor seeks these sanctions as a penalty for what he regards as a multi-faceted series of episodes of alleged spoliation involving the failure to retain and preserve physical evidence, as well as a failure to preserve prison videotapes which may have depicted aspects of this incident in which Victor contends that excessive force was used against him in the course of a cell extraction at the prison.

These claims of spoliation were set, in part, against the backdrop of disciplinary proceedings conducted by prison officials in the wake of this use-of-force incident. Indeed, many of Victor's claims derive from evidence developed by the Department of Corrections during its own internal inquiries. Accordingly, in order to allow Victor every reasonable opportunity to factually develop these spoliation claims, we conducted a week-long evidentiary hearing in this matter. At this hearing, Victor elicited testimony from numerous correctional witnesses and inmates. This evidentiary hearing enabled the parties to fully inform the Court on the circumstances surrounding these spoliation claims, and provided us with a complete factual record upon which to rule on Victor's motion.

Having carefully examined these matters, in the exercise of our discretion, we conclude that Victor's motions should be denied, in part, and granted, in part, as follows: First, we find with respect to Victor's claims of wholesale spoliation of physical evidence that the Plaintiff has not carried his burden of proving culpable, intentional spoliation. Rather, the evidence presented at this hearing reveals that prison officials, with differing understandings of prison record retention practices, made a series of decisions regarding retention of articles which led to the retention of a great deal of probative evidence, even if it did not result in the retention of all evidence sought by Victor.

Yet, while we find that Victor has not established his wholesale claims of spoliation, we conclude that Victor is entitled to some limited relief since the evidence also reveals that certain Defendants may have made statements that a fact-fact finder could conclude were both contradictory and could support a false exculpatory inference. Therefore, if Victor elicits adequate proof of these matters at trial, we will in the exercise of our discretion provide Victor limited relief in the form of jury instructions which specifically address these issues relating to the prior statements of these witnesses and Defendants.

II. Findings of Fact

With respect to Victor's multi-faceted spoliation motion, we find that the following facts were proven at the evidentiary hearing conducted by the Court: In June of 2008, the Plaintiff, William Victor, was an inmate housed in the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU) at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Huntingdon. On the evening of June 28, 2008, Victor became embroiled in a series of increasingly contentious exchanges with prison staff relating to a plan to move Victor from his cell at the RHU, exchanges which escalated to the point where Victor was alleged to have thrown a shoe at a correctional officer and declined to comply with staff instructions to move voluntarily. Accordingly, a decision was made that prison officials would conduct an extraction of Victor from his cell, by force, if necessary.

At the time that this decision was made at SCI Huntingdon, there were in place at the institution several systems and practices which would have captured evidence relating to this cell extraction and prisoner movement. First, within the housing unit itself there were fixed surveillance cameras which recorded activities in the common areas of the housing unit on an on-going basis. This constant video surveillance was conducted using video tape equipment which recycled and re-used tapes. Thus, the fixed video surveillance system on the housing units typically would automatically re-use and tape over prior surveillance videos unless specific measures were taken to preserve particular videos.

A similar, fixed video surveillance system existed in certain observation cells inside the prison where inmates were placed for medical or psychiatric observation. Like the general housing unit video surveillance system, this observation cell surveillance system relied upon surveillance equipment which routinely and automatically re-used, recycled and taped over prior surveillance records.

Finally, as part of cell extractions there was a practice at the institution to assign to the cell extraction team a correctional staff member who served as a videographer, recording all inmate cell extractions. On June 28, 2008, prison officials followed this practice and assigned Correctional Officer Goodman as the videographer on Victor's cell extraction. Goodman was inexperienced as a videographer, and this was the first, and ultimately the only, occasion on which he performed this duty.

Officer Goodman's video of this June 28, 2008, episode is, therefore, the most complete and contemporaneous recorded account of this cell extraction. That video reveals that at approximately, 7:55 p.m., on June 28, 2008, Lieutenant William Diffin, who was assigned to oversee Victor's cell extraction, assembled a team of seven staff to conduct this operation. The cell extraction team included 5 correctional officers-- Officers Lehman, Eberling, Pyle, Grove and Plummer--a videographer, Officer Goodman, and a nurse, Hallie Ritchey.

Once the team was assembled, Lt. Diffin briefed them regarding the proposed cell extraction. As part of this briefing, Diffin reported that Victor might be fashioning a noose from sheets in his cell as part of a suicide attempt.*fn1 Diffin's claim that Victor was making a noose on June 28 remains one of the principal controversies in this lawsuit, and is one of the primary issues with respect to this motion.

As the cell extraction team assembled outside of Victor's cell, Lt. Diffin announced that Victor was "hanging up", or placing a noose around his neck. The cell extraction team then rushed into the cell and subdued Victor, taking him to the floor of the cell as they restrained, stripped and searched this inmate. The cell extraction video recorded by Officer Goodman provides only a very limited view of this aspect of this operation. Goodman remained outside the cell and, therefore, had only a limited and obstructed view of what transpired inside the cell. The video, however, does not clearly depict any noose made from bedding. Indeed, any view of Victor or his cell is largely obscured by the correctional staff who are working in this confined space to restrain him. The audio portion of the cell extraction video reveals, however, that as Victor was being restrained he challenged the assertion that he had been "hanging up," and can be heard repeatedly denying that he had made a noose from a sheet.

Furthermore, the members of the cell extraction team who entered Victor's cell to restrain him on June 28, subsequently provided inconsistent accounts regarding the presence of a noose fashioned from bedding in the cell. Some officers have asserted that they observed either a noose or bedding draped around Victor's throat; other cell extraction team members do not recall observing any such home-made noose. Moreover, while one correctional officer, Defendant Snyder, reported recovering the noose from Victor's cell and carrying it away from the scene, other inmate eyewitnesses insisted that the knotted sheet was brought to the cell by correctional officers. This confusion is then compounded by the fact that the knotted sheet was not preserved by corrections officials. Instead, prison officials photographed the knotted bedding which they stated they had recovered from Victor's cell, but did not retain the sheet in its original state. Thus, at present the only extant evidence of this noose is the prison photograph of the knotted sheet. Further heightening this confusion regarding the source and existence of this noose is the fact that one member fo the cell extraction team, Nurse Ritchey, has provided what may be construed as inconsistent statements regarding the presence of a noose, initially submitting a statement which indicated that Victor had placed a noose around his neck, and then later recanting that statement, alleging that her initial statement was false and asserting that she had not actually observed the noose which she initially reported, but was merely repeating what she was told by others.

Once Victor was subdued in his cell, he was removed from that cell by the cell extraction team, and was transported by the team to an adjoining cell block where he was placed in another cell. During this prisoner transfer process, the cell extraction video does not clearly depict Victor, who is obscured by the transporting officers. Nonetheless Victor can be heard clearly and distinctly speaking out and challenging the correctional staff's conduct, actions on Victor's part are inconsistent which the injuries Victor ultimately suffered, a broken jaw which rendered him largely mute and speechless.

When Victor was placed in the second cell by the cell extraction team, Officer Goodman's cell extraction video reveals that the view of this prisoner was once again obscured in the narrow confines of the cell by correctional staff. Yet, while Victor cannot clearly be seen in the video, the cell extraction video captures graphic proof of some serious injury suffered by Victor, as Victor can be plainly heard screaming in pain. Victor then falls mute, but later can be observed on the video gesturing to Lt. Diffin and Nurse Ritchey through the cell door window, pointing to his broken jaw.

All of these events can be observed on the cell extraction video. However, after this cell extraction was completed, Victor was placed in the second cell and released from his restraints, the cell extraction video was briefly stopped for approximately 8 seconds, before resuming. This brief interruption in the cell extraction video, which came at the conclusion of the cell extraction procedure, is yet another controversy in this case and a potential spoliation issue raised by Victor in this spoliation motion.

On June 28, 2008, shortly after this cell extraction concluded, Victor was transferred to a psychiatric observation cell, where his actions were videotaped.

These videotapes further confirmed that Victor had suffered some serious injury to his jaw, as Victor can be seen in the observation cell repeatedly spitting blood from his mouth injury. Correctional officials have produced these videotapes for Victor and have also provided detailed medical records of examinations conducted of Victor by nursing staff in the hours immediately following this cell extraction. While they have produced this extensive documentation, correctional officials reported that some observation cell logs could not be ...

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