NORRISTOWN — Five former Montgomery County correctional officers hugged each other, their relatives and their lawyers, elated after a jury acquitted all five men of assaulting two inmates at the county jail.
“You see how we’re leaving, right?” Darrin Collins, 53, of Phoenixville, a former lieutenant at the jail, said to reporters as he locked arms with three of his onetime colleagues and jubilantly left the courthouse.
“It speaks for itself,” Edwin Negron, 54, of Exton, a former captain at the jail, said when asked for reaction to his acquittal.
After 12 hours of deliberations over two days, a jury acquitted Collins; Negron; and correctional officers Alfred Gregory Jr., 34, of East Coventry, Chester County; Anthony Saxby, 32, of Upper Gwynedd; and Randall Sims, 42, of Norristown, of felony charges of aggravated assault in connection with an interaction they had with inmate Derrick Houlihan on Valentine’s Day 2017.
Jurors also acquitted Negron, Collins, Sims, and Gregory of a charge of simple assault in connection with an altercation with inmate Matthew Ruffings on Feb. 14, 2017. Saxby was not charged with assaulting Ruffings.
“The families are pleased. We are pleased and it was the right verdict. These jurors worked hard, they saw the evidence and knew that these guys were not guilty, and never were guilty of anything,” defense lawyer Nino Tinari, who represented Sims, reacted to the verdict.
“(The correctional officers) did their job and they did it well and they did it with dignity. They’re good people and people that should be admired,” added Tinari, characterizing the former guards as “great, great guys.”
The jury also acquitted the former officers of hindering apprehension or prosecution in connection with allegations the men attempted to cover up the assaults afterward.
“We are incredibly grateful to the jury. They worked very, very hard and they came to the right decision. We’re ecstatic,” said defense lawyer Adam D. Zucker, who represented Gregory.
VIDEO: Defense lawyer A. Charles Peruto speaks on behalf of Edwin Negron (on right) Ex captain at #MontcoPa jail who was ACQUITTED of assaulting inmates. Jury hung on one charge of official oppression against Negron. pic.twitter.com/bCZ3KGzvic— Carl Hessler Jr. (@MontcoCourtNews) February 1, 2019
“We thank the jury. It’s just nice that our guys walked out the door,” added defense lawyer Sharon R. Meisler, who represented Collins.
It's unclear if the officers could seek to be reinstated to their former positions at the Lower Providence jail.
First Assistant District Attorney Edward F. McCann Jr. and co-prosecutor Kelly Lloyd were “extremely disappointed” in the outcome.
“We respect the jury’s effort but I don’t think their verdict constitutes justice in any manner in this case. I think our case was strong and I’m pretty shocked by it, to be honest with you,” McCann reacted to the verdict, adding prosecutors stand by the evidence they presented to the jury during a nine-day trial.
“We stand by the evidence in the case that we put on and we don’t think that they behaved as reasonable correctional officers,” Lloyd added.
The jury was unable to reach a verdict on another charge, official oppression, lodged against each man. Prosecutors could still retry the men on that charge but they have made no decision.
During the trial, McCann and Lloyd argued the “callous, cold-hearted” assaults “served no legitimate correctional purpose” and that the force was excessive and “not reasonable.”
But defense lawyers characterized the correctional officers as dedicated to their jobs and as men of good character who used “reasonable force under the circumstances” as they dealt with unruly inmates. Defense lawyers suggested the correctional officers did not violate use of force policies.
None of the defendants testified during the trial. They presented character witnesses who testified they have reputations for being peaceful and non-violent.
VIDEO: Defense lawyers Adam Zucker & Sharon Meisler, who represented ex #MontcoPa correctional officers Alfred Gregory Jr. & Darrin Collins, react to their clients’ Acquittals on assault charges pic.twitter.com/zrFHdqJE8N— Carl Hessler Jr. (@MontcoCourtNews) February 1, 2019
Last week, Houlihan, now 44, testified he was assaulted twice by correctional officers on Feb. 14. Prosecutors alleged Houlihan, who wears a prosthetic leg, initially was assaulted in his cell, then taken for medical treatment and then assaulted a second time in a common area of the K-6 section of the jail while guards escorted him from the medical unit back to his cell.
Testimony revealed Houlihan suffered a laceration above his eye, two broken ribs and cuts and abrasions to his arms and his natural leg during the alleged assaults. Houlihan also was deprived the use of his prosthetic leg for approximately 12 hours after the beatings, according to testimony.
But defense lawyer Alfred Merlie, who represented Saxby, implied Houlihan instigated the confrontation with the hope of filing a civil suit against the county jail and win a “$1 million” financial settlement.
Defense lawyer A. Charles Peruto, who represented Negron, and Tinari, Zucker and Meisler argued Houlihan was the aggressor and characterized Houlihan as a career criminal, “a problem inmate, an instigator and constant troublemaker.”
VIDEO: #MontcoPa First Assistant DA Edward F. McCann Jr. & co-prosecutor Kelly Lloyd react to jury’s #Verdict that acquitted 5 ex #Montco correctional officers of charges they assaulted inmates pic.twitter.com/ouECmCxblu— Carl Hessler Jr. (@MontcoCourtNews) February 1, 2019
Houlihan, who at the time was in jail awaiting trial on drug charges in connection with a Cheltenham incident, denied assaulting the correctional officers.
Jurors appeared riveted as they watched surveillance video footage that recorded the assault of Houlihan.
Prosecutors suggested correctional officers may not have been aware that a new camera had been installed in the K-6 section and that it had been actively recording at the time of the assault of Houlihan. When jail administrators reviewed the video footage, they concluded that what they viewed did not match what the correctional officers documented in their incident reports, according to court papers.
At trial, Ruffings, now 20, testified that after Houlihan was assaulted, Gregory looked directly at him and uttered, “You’re next.” A short time later, Ruffings testified, several correctional officers entered his cell and Sims “socked” him in the face with a closed fist. Ruffings claimed other correctional officers then kicked and beat him.
Prosecutors alleged Ruffings, who was in jail at the time awaiting court action on charges in connection with an October 2015 assault-related incident in Norristown, suffered a broken nose and bruising to his face as a result of the alleged beating.
Houlihan and Ruffings implied the assaults were sparked by an event the previous day when inmates disobeyed correctional officers’ orders to clean up trash outside their cells. Ruffings and Houlihan testified they didn’t want to pick up trash from others’ cells with their hands.
Prosecutors also alleged three officers who were wearing body cameras during the alleged incidents did not activate them or took actions to destroy the video that was captured.
A sixth correctional officer, Jason Michael Marshall, 41, of Zionsville, Lehigh County, previously was sentenced to two years’ probation after he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of official oppression and obstructing administration of law in connection with the jailhouse incidents. With his guilty plea, Marshall admitted that he gave one light kick to Houlihan during the altercation and then was present at a group meeting where the perpetrators discussed getting their stories straight.
Authorities alleged Marshall, who testified against the five other guards, was the least culpable of the six correctional officers charged in connection with the incidents.
The investigation began when an assistant warden was informed verbally by correctional officers that they used physical force on an inmate. That required the submission of incident reports as well as obtaining jailhouse video surveillance footage that was available, prosecutors said.
When an initial internal review found that some officers may have used excessive force on two prisoners, may have lied about their involvement and took steps to minimize or destroy available surveillance footage, county detectives were notified and a grand jury investigation was launched.