The first witnesses took the stand Tuesday afternoon in the federal trial of former Harrison County jailers Ryan Teel and Rick Gaston. The two are charged with taking part in a conspiracy that involved the abuse of inmates at the county jail.
In opening statements, the prosecution painted a disturbing picture of rampant inmate abuse inside the booking area at the Harrison County jail. Prosecutor Lisa Krigsten told jurors that Ryan Teel encouraged a "culture of abuse."
She says Teel and Gaston used their badges as a license to "abuse the weak and the vulnerable." Krigsten says Teel, who was the officer in charge of booking, set the tone for other jailers and encouraged inmate abuse. She says he taught other jailers how to choke inmates until they passed out.
The government painted Gaston as a hothead supervisor who frequently resorted to acts of violence against inmates who angered him. Krigsten told jurors that Gaston led by example, but that example was to "ruthlessly abuse" inmates who angered him.
The prosecution said it was Teel who beat inmate Jessie Lee Williams Jr., the man whose death sparked the investigation at the jail. During opening statements, Krigsten told the jury Teel kicked, abused and tasered Williams.
The government said Jessie Lee Williams was simply one in a long line of inmates who suffered at the hands of jailers.
Krigsten told the jury the use of force is not wrong, but intentionally using abusive, excessive force is wrong.
In their opening statements, defense attorneys suggested the case may hinge on whether the behavior constitutes "excessive force." Teel's attorney, Jim Davis, said corrections officers are entitled to use force to maintain discipline.
He said, "We feel our clients never used excessive force."
Davis encouraged jailers to look very, very closely at the jail video tapes that will be used as evidence by the government. He also suggested Jessie Lee Williams may have died from an injury he sustained before he arrived at the lock up.
Davis said, although Williams had marks on the left side of his face from the jail altercation, he died of bruising on the right side of his brain.
The attorney also said the foundation of the government's case involves former jailers who may have an ax to grind.
In his opening statement, Gaston's attorney said his client never agreed to punish inmates. Attorney Omidara Jupiter told the jury that Gaston used only an amount of force necessary to maintain control.
Jupiter also spoke about bad conditions at the Harrison County Jail. He said the jail was a "dangerous" place, and not just because it was overcrowded and understaffed. He told the jury the evidence will show there were also "divisions in leadership" at the jail. He said people took advantage of a weak chain of command at every level of that jail.
He told the jury, "Mr. Gaston did nothing unreasonable when he dealt with these inmates."
The first government witnesses told a far different story.
The first two witnesses were officers from Alabama who'd come to the Harrison County jail in 2003 to pick up a prisoner for transport. They described how an angry Rick Gaston assaulted the inmate, who was in cuffs, after the prisoner had spit at Gaston.
Officer Patrick Craft testified, "We had him (the inmate) under control, hands behind his back. He was no threat to anybody."
But the most damning testimony against the defendants came from former jailer William Priest. He's one of several former jailers who pleaded guilty for taking part in the inmate abuse, and agreed to cooperate with the government in exchange for lighter sentences.
Priest told the jury that the abuse of inmates in the booking area was widespread, accepted and even encouraged.
He said Ryan Teel often taunted inmates before he assaulted them. Priest said Teel was fond of saying, "I'm going to use your whole body to make me feel better."
Priest testified that Teel was proud that he was the first in Harrison County to use a taser gun. He shot one at an inmate in the shower area. Asked about his demeanor, Priest said Teel was "giddy," like a kid being the first to try out a new toy.
Priest told the jury about a case involving an unruly female inmate. When she refused to quiet down, Gaston and Teel intervened. Despite the fact she was locked in a holding cell, the pair came in and applied force. Priest said Teel hit the woman several times in the face, while Gaston "tasered" her. Priest admited, he too struck the woman in the face with his closed fist.
The former jailer said he and others conspired to keep the abuse covered up. He said they all knew how to "fool the camera" and abuse inmates without getting caught on the video monitoring system.
Priest saidthe abuse was so rampant, there were slang terms for days of the week, like "Thump a Thug Thursday."
Priest also gave details about how he and other jailers, including Teel, would falsify reports to cover up their unacceptable behavior. He told the jury, "We'd get together and make sure the report was favorable to us; that it was the inmates' fault."
He says Rick Gaston told jailers, "Do what you got to do, make sure the camera doesn't see you."
Priest says Gaston would often order booking officers to "take care of" an inmate causing problems or a commotion. That would involve anything from yelling at the inmate, to beating them. Priest says in extreme cases, some inmates were lifted in the air and slammed onto a metal bench.
Priest talked of one particularly gruesome beating. He said former jailer Morgan Thompson beat an inmate so badly, his booking photograph was a bloody mess. Priest said Thompson posted the pictures around the booking room and had it on computers to "brag" about the beating.
He will resume his testimony for the government when the trial resumes Wednesday morning at 9am.