Defense Begins Testimony In Federal Inmate Abuse Trial - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Defense Begins Testimony In Federal Inmate Abuse Trial

Defense attorney Jim Davis says his defense of defendant Ryan Teel will involve whether or not "excessive force" was used in the booking room of the Harrison County jail.

Teel and defendant Rick Gaston are on trial for their alleged role in abusing inmates at the jail.

Davis admits that force was used in booking, but only the force that was necessary to maintain control of that often chaotic facility.

The defense began presenting its case after the government prosecution rested at 1:36pm Monday.

Three of the four final prosecution witnesses continued sharing horror stories about rampant inmate abuse and unnecessary use of force within booking.

Regina Rhodes was the first government witness Monday morning. She's among the former jailers who have already pleaded guilty for their role in the abuse of inmates.

She told the jury it was wrong for her and defendant Teel to repeatedly strike a restrained Jessie Lee Williams Jr., the inmate who later died after the altercation at the jail. Rhodes testified it "should have ended" when he was placed back in handcuffs.

"There was no reason for us to be hitting Mr. Williams", she said. "I feel guilty and am guilty of my actions."

Rhodes admitted she's suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder since the Williams incident, a condition for which she takes medication.

She described defendant Gaston, the booking boss, as "one of our brothers."

Rhodes told the jury Gaston was present when booking officers used excessive force and was present when those officers boasted about it.

Former jailer Morgan Thompson also took the stand Monday morning. He too has pleaded guilty for his role in the inmate abuse. He told of the night Ryan Teel was hitting Jessie Lee Williams. Thompson was present for much of the altercation.

He told the jury Teel "was outraged." He says Teel may have been "embarrassed" at his inability to bring the situation under control more quickly.

For his part, Thompson admitted using excessive force on occasion. One such incident involved an attack against inmate Only Al Khidir. His booking photo showed his face was a bloody mess. Thompson admitted getting angry and using excessive force.

He told the jury, "I'd gone beyond what I needed to do."

Thompson also told of inmate abuse during the time he worked on the cellblocks, where the inmates live. He told the jury about ordering inmates to do "naked jumping jacks" when there was no reason for such humiliation.

Thompson admitted he grew cold about his actions.

"After you do something for so long, you don't look at it as being wrong," he testified. "I lost touch with the humanity of the people who came in there."

He also admitted to using excessive force in front of supervisor Rick Gaston.

Former jailer Elizabeth Allen also shared stories of inmate abuse and the writing of false reports to cover up the actions.

She testified Gaston knew about the abuse and approved. She told about how Gaston was present one time when an inmate was "hog tied."

"I heard Gaston make the comment, 'remember red light green light,'" she testified, referring to the unwritten policy about where to strike an inmate without leaving marks.

She said officers who did not take part in such abuse were ridiculed and labeled "inmate lovers."

Before mounting his defense, Teel's attorney, Jim Davis, asked the court for a judgement of not guilty. He said the court should not have allowed prosecution witnesses to give their opinions about the use of "excessive force." He also questioned whether there was a proper definition of that term to instruct the jury in this case.

Judge Louis Guirola denied the motion. He said there are many questions the jury must resolve, but said there is plenty of evidence before them.

Some of the first defense witnesses were former jailers who saw things differently in booking. Deputies David Pavolini and James Harrier said they "never" saw the use of unnecessary force in the booking area while they worked there.

Pavolini also said he never saw defendant Teel participate in such force.

The first government witness never made it to the stand. Justin Branning, who worked as a jailer, was called to testify, but invoked the fifth amendment. That means you don't have to testify if you feel you might incriminate yourself.

The defense team for Gaston asked if the government might grant Branning immunity from prosecution to testify. Prosecutors said "no."

Dr. Leroy Riddick spent time on the stand for the defense Monday afternoon.  This expert forensic pathologist presented more testimony about the fatal wounds to inmate Jessie Lee Williams. 

Dr. Riddick said there were two "bleeding events" in Williams' brain. He says the inmate died from a massive brain hemorrhage, one that was likely, "sustained during an altercation with multiple officers at the jail."

In opening statements, defense attorney Jim Davis had suggested Williams may have been injured before he arrived at the jail.

The only testimony to indicate that came from Marijuana Durr. She took the stand Monday afternoon.  Durr, who was dating Jessie Williams at the time, told about an altercation at her apartment. Williams was picked up by the police.  Durr said it looked like he was injured when she saw him in the back of the squad car.

Defense testimony resumes Tuesday morning at nine. The trial is expected to wrap up this week.

By Steve Phillips

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