MONROE — A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit against nine officers who were on duty the day a prisoner was fatally beaten by a fellow Monroe Correctional Complex inmate in 2015.
U.S. District Court Judge James Robart rejected the defense argument that the correctional officers had qualified immunity that protected them from legal action.
The Wednesday ruling opens the door for plaintiff’s attorneys to interview the officers about what led to the inmate’s death May 9, 2015, in the prison’s Special Offenders Unit.
“We are going to be proceeding with discovery in short order, which includes depositions of officers,” said Edwin Budge, a Seattle attorney representing the estate of slain inmate Gordon “Casey” Powell.
Both the victim and the inmate accused of killing him had mental health issues that led to their placement in the Special Offenders Unit.
Benjamin Cory Price, 35, is charged with aggravated first-degree murder in Snohomish County Superior Court. He is accused of stomping Powell to death. The Centralia man, 45, died from brain injuries. Powell was described in court papers as “the smallest and frailest” offender in the unit. The attack was caught on the prison’s video surveillance system.
Trial is set for July 2017.
Under federal rules, the complaint does not name the state Department of Corrections as a defendant. Instead, it lists nine corrections officers who are being represented by the state Attorney General. The officers receive legal indemnity from the state, Budge said.
Price allegedly confessed to the slaying. He has a history of delusions. He called Powell a “Satan buddy.” He also said Powell used telepathy to tell him that if he assaulted him, Price finally would get to talk to police and a lawyer.
The criminal case is in limbo. For now, mental health experts have determined Price is incompetent to stand trial.
Attorneys representing Powell’s family moved forward with the civil lawsuit because there is no way of knowing when and if Price will be deemed competent to stand trial.
The lawsuit alleges corrections officers were afraid of Price and were “deliberately indifferent” in not protecting Powell. Allowing him to be attacked amounted to cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Bill of Rights, the civil lawsuit alleges. The plaintiff’s attorneys allege the officers knew Price needed to be segregated from other inmates and that “failing to do so posed a grave and imminent threat.”
Attorneys for the state argued that the officers did not know at the time of the assault that they were exposing Powell to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment and therefore were entitled to immunity from being sued.
The day of the attack, one corrections officer noted that Price appeared “off his baseline” and alerted fellow officers. Similar concerns also were noted in a prison log book, according to court papers.
Powell allegedly was exposed “to an unstable homicidal maniac with a history of killing and a present desire to kill without reason, provocation or justifications.”
Price is serving a 12-year sentence for another killing. He strangled his girlfriend, Dawn Ruger, in 2006 and hid her body in rural Whatcom County. Two years later he confessed and led police to her body. Price claimed Ruger was putting demons in his head. He was charged with second-degree murder in Skagit County and eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter after a lengthy stay at Western State Hospital.
Price also made delusional claims in 2011 after attempting to strangle his cellmate at Stafford Creek Correctional Center in Grays Harbor County. He said he had a dream convincing him that his new cellmate was the devil.
Price has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and antisocial personality disorder.
Powell was serving time for second-degree burglary. He had broken a window at a store and taken some liquor.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; email@example.com.