By Vandana Sinha
WASHINGTON – A federal appellate court said a Maryland prison guard was “too stupid” to realize he was placing an inmate at risk and should not be held liable for a violent knife attack by another inmate.
The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals last week reversed a district judge’s ruling that Sgt. Michael Bruce showed “deliberate indifference” in the attack that left inmate Gregory Rich cut from his chin to his groin at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center.
A three-judge panel of the appellate court found instead that Bruce did not realize his actions would put Rich at a greater risk than usual. It lifted a judgment of $40,000 in compensatory damages and more than $20,000 in attorney fees against Bruce.
Paul R. Kramer, Rich’s lawyer, said he was disappointed with the 4th Circuit’s ruling, which he said would put a “chilling effect” on such civil rights cases in the future.
“In Rich’s case, he was handcuffed with his hands behind his back,” said the former deputy U.S. attorney for Maryland. “He was led right into a room where his archenemy was waiting in there with a knife to stab him.”
The suit stems from a 1992 incident when Bruce was leading Rich back to his cell from an outside recreational area, according to court records.
They stopped at a locked door that separated them from Kenneth Higgins, a highly violent inmate whom Rich stabbed earlier that year.
As a result of what judges declared a misunderstanding, another guard opened the door, and Higgins rushed at the handcuffed Rich with a shank. Bruce tried to protect Rich, court records say, but Higgins stabbed his archenemy, hospitalizing him and leaving him with a permanent scar from his chin to his groin.
According to prison procedures, Bruce, a supervising officer, should not have had two inmates out of their cells at one time and should have had another guard with him, court records show. Higgins should also have been cuffed and searched before he left his cell to ensure he was not armed.
“If this isn’t deliberate indifference, then I don’t know what is,” said Kramer.
But David Kennedy, the assistant attorney general who represented Bruce, said the burden was on Rich to prove that the guard “actually knew of the significant risk.”
“The trial court never found that Officer Bruce actually intended this to happen,” he said. “The 4th Circuit court applied the law to the facts and came to a different conclusion.”
The appellate court opinion noted that “the district court did not find that Bruce knew that his violations of the regulations created any unique risk for Rich. Quite the contrary, the district court actually concluded that Bruce was too stupid to realize this.”
U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis defended his 1996 ruling in favor of Rich, saying he reviewed Supreme Court precedents and visited the correctional facility before issuing his decision.
“I ruled based on the evidence and law, based on my understanding of the law,” said Davis, who sits in the federal court in Baltimore. “Deliberate indifference means a very high degree of risk that was knowingly ignored.”