Re-examining Lucasville: Essay 4
Summary So Far
by Staughton Lynd
November 8, 2012
So far, I have been discussing the Lucasville uprising as a whole. I’ve asked: Why should we doubt the accuracy of the trial court verdicts? What caused this rebellion, anyway? In what sense can these events be called “tragic”?
Let’s sum up where we have arrived.
In Essay 1 we offered some examples of the unreliability of conclusions asserted by prosecutors in trials after the end of the uprising. Particularly dramatic was the statement of one of the prosecutors (now a state court judge), Daniel Hogan, that we would never know “who hands-on killed the corrections officer, [Robert] Vallandingham. . . . I don’t know. And I don’t think we’ll ever know.” How can the State of Ohio propose to execute three men (Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Jason Robb, and James Were) for the murder of Officer Vallandingham when it doesn’t even know who killed him?
Essay 2 focused on a confidential memorandum of the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, prepared in 1989 on the basis of dozens of letters and interviews. Prisoners at SOCF, the CIIC reported, “relayed fears and predictions of a major disturbance unlike any ever seen in Ohio prison history.” It seems that this was a prison that had “gone wrong” before the murder of Beverly Jo Taylor in 1990 or Warden Tate’s refusal to consider alternative means of testing for TB in 1993.
Finally, Essay 3 quoted the testimony of Sergeant Howard Hudson, a member of the state’s hostage negotiation team, who said that the authorities deliberately stonewalled, that is, dragged out negotiations with the prisoners in rebellion. The tragically mistaken assumption of government negotiators was that “the more time goes on the greater the chances for a peaceful resolution to the situation.”
Essay 3 also quoted from an assessment of the rebellion by the union of correctional officers. The union asserted that a statement to the media on the morning of April 14 by Tessa Unwin, a public information officer for the state, “practically guaranteed the hostage death [because] the inmates were almost forced to kill or maim a hostage.”
However, let’s be clear. The point of all this evidence of misconduct or misjudgment by the authorities is not to argue that the prisoners in L-block were innocent. The prisoners, as a body, killed ten helpless human beings: nine fellow prisoners and a hostage officer. The point is that the authorities shared the responsibility for these deaths.
One might have hoped that, recognizing this, ODRC and prisoner negotiators would have understood the agreement that ended the ordeal as a starting point for resolution of the problems that caused the rebellion.
What the 21-Point Surrender Agreement Promised, and Why It Didn’t Happen
Unlike the 1971 uprising in Attica, New York, when the armed forces of the State stormed the occupied recreation yard and more than forty persons were killed, the Lucasville rebellion ended with a negotiated agreement. An assault force was assembled at Lucasville and an assault plan was drawn up. (See my Lucasville, revised edition, p. 85.) But the assault never happened.
Instead, after the death of Officer Vallandingham the authorities became serious about negotiations. Gathering specifics from the lists of demands set forth on the sheets prisoners hung out of L-block windows, the authorities set forth what they would do about twenty-one of the prisoners’ demands. Warden Tate signed the document to indicate his agreement. The document was then proffered to the three negotiators chosen by the prisoners: Siddique Abdullah Hasan, representing the Sunni Muslims; Anthony Lavelle of the Black Gangster Disciples; and Jason Robb of the Aryan Brotherhood. In this way the authorities were able to maintain the fiction that they were not “negotiating.”
The State did a second thing. Attorney Niki Schwartz of Cleveland had been involved in major litigation to correct conditions of confinement at the “Old Mansfield” prison. (This is the prison used as a movie set in the filming of The Shawshank Redemption.) ODRC general counsel Greg Trout called Attorney Schwartz to ask him to assist in a peaceful settlement at Lucasville. Attorney Schwartz agreed to contribute what he could and was flown to SOCF on Sunday, April 18.
Later Schwartz, as a witness in the trials of Jason Robb and Siddique Abdullah Hasan, described his experiences. He said that Trout had asked him to be an “attorney for the inmates, because the inmates had asked for a lawyer.” State v. Robb, Tr. at 5581. Once he arrived in Portsmouth, Schwartz was told by prison officials that “they didn’t want me to negotiate to try to improve the deal.” Id. at 5582.
Schwartz testified that legally the authorities were not bound to honor an agreement negotiated under duress, but he had taken the position that unless the authorities were prepared to honor the 21-point agreement, he was unwilling to go further. Id. at 5583-5584. The officials gave him their word that they would honor the agreement. They said, according to Schwartz: “There’s a lot of things in there we should have been doing anyway.” Id. at 5584.
The authorities asked Schwartz, because he had dealt with the prison authorities in the past, to “vouch” for the fact they intended to keep their word. Id.; also State v. Sanders, Tr. at 5485-5487.
In retrospect, the State kept its word with regard to many of the 21 points, but dramatically failed to honor the two most important. (The 2l points appear in Lucasville, revised edition, pp. 64-66, and Exhibit 1.) These were Point 2: “Administrative discipline and criminal proceedings will be fairly and impartially administered without bias against individuals or groups,” and Point 14: “There will be no retaliatory actions taken toward any inmate or groups of inmates or their property.”
It should also be noted that even with regard to most of the other points, the State promised to do no more than see what could be done. For example, regarding the hated restriction that limited telephone calls to family and friends to one five-minute call per year, the authorities responded in Point 12: “Attempts will be made to expedite current plans to install a new phone system.” As to the absence of “programs” for self-improvement under Warden Tate’s Operation Shakedown, Point 13 vaguely declared: “We will work to evaluate and improve work and programmatic opportunities.” Respecting interference with mail, prisoners were told in Point 15: “A complete review of all SOCF mail and visiting policies will be undertaken.”
These are promises so noncommittal that it is hard to imagine how prisoners could have filed grievances or lawsuits alleging their violation.
However, the critical provisions of the 21-point agreement (Points 2 and 14 prohibiting retribution against alleged leaders) were not enforced for a reason that had nothing to do with their wording. The residents of Portsmouth, the county seat of Scioto County, were incensed about the murder of Beverly Jo Taylor in 1990, which was repeated, so it seemed to them, by the strangling of hostage officer Robert Vallandingham in 1993. In each case, as perceived by the local population, a helpless hostage was brutally murdered by the person or persons who had kidnapped them. It didn’t help that the man who killed Ms. Taylor, a mentally-challenged inmate named Eddie Vaughn, was black, as were the unnamed “Muslims” who, the prosecution told juries, had killed Officer Vallandingham.
Eddie Vaughn was not sentenced to death because of his mental limitations. After the April 1993 events, the community demanded that someone should die for strangling Officer Vallandingham. A petition was circulated in southern Ohio. Addressed to the governor, the president of the Ohio Senate, and the speaker of the Ohio House, it was signed by approximately 26,000 persons. A delegation presented the petition at the state capitol. The petition (Appendix 3 in Lucasville) “request[ed] and demand[ed] that the present statute of the Death Penalty in the State of Ohio be applied as the passers intended it to be.” Ohio’s capital punishment statute, purporting to apply the law as declared by the Supreme Court of the United States, had been adopted several years before but there had been no executions pursuant to its provisions. The petitioners insisted that the time to begin such executions was now. The public officials to whom it was addressed, the petition concluded, “must accept their responsibility to carry out the wishes of the Voters of the State of Ohio.”
In such an over-heated atmosphere legal niceties were likely to be disregarded. It seems certain that persons who signed the petition were members of the petit juries that convicted Orson Wells and Eric Scales. Petition signers may also have been among the members of the grand jury that issued capital indictments in the summer of 1994. In November 2011, Chief Judge Susan Dlott of the Southern District of Ohio ordered that the names of those grand jurors be produced for Lucasville defense counsel in Hasan’s case.
How do passion and prejudice do their work in the minds and hearts of prosecutors and jurors who have sworn to be fair and impartial? Judge Hogan told filmmaker Derrick Jones that he believed that serious misconduct during the eleven days supposedly committed by members of the Aryan Brotherhood had been ordered by the highest-ranking member of the group in L-block, Paul “Tramp” Johnson. However, the judge continued, AB members Jason Robb and George Skatzes had refused to “snitch” on Johnson. “They didn’t want to talk.” Accordingly, Hogan went on, he proceeded against Robb and Skatzes, despite the fact that (so he said), “I don’t think they were the ones actually running the show.”
The best rebuttal witnesses to this oversimplified popular sentiment may be the hostage officers themselves.
We have already cited Siege in Lucasville written by hostage officer Larry Dotson in cooperation with Gary Williams. Dotson refers to a lawsuit filed by the “union recommended law firm” of Carr and Sherman. The pleadings and court orders in this litigation have recently come into the possession of the author.
The plaintiffs in Case No. 94-05290, in the Court of Claims of Ohio, were Robert Vallandingham’s widow, Peggy Vallandingham, and hostage officers John Kemper, Richard Buffington, Darrold Clark, Kenneth Daniels, Harold Fraley, Conrad Nagel, Jeff Ratcliff, Robert Schroeder, Larry Dotson, and their families. Officer Michael Hensley and his family were added as plaintiffs when the complaint was amended in April 1995. Officers Rodney Pennington and Michael Stump, who were “seriously injured” although not taken hostage, were also plaintiffs. Defendants were the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and three administrative agencies with oversight over the construction of public buildings.
According to the Complaint:
۰ The ODRC “knew or should have known of the prisoners’ plan to riot before its occurrence” thereby intentionally and/or negligently placing Plaintiffs in a position of known danger.
۰ When the uprising began, the ODRC failed to protect hostage Plaintiffs by not following its own policies and procedures.
۰ The ODRC was responsible for making the critical decisions in negotiations, and despite knowing “that the inmate captors knew their [that is, Defendants’] negotiation protocols,” acted deliberately, negligently and/or with wantonness and recklessness and/or with negligence. Defendants’ acts and omissions in negotiations included “refusal to negotiate in good faith.”
۰ The ODRC allowed “false public information” to be disseminated that was “highly probable and/or foreseeable to result in serious bodily injury or death to the hostages.” This is a reference to Ms. Unwin’s statement on April 14.
۰ On or about April 11, 1993, several officers had sought refuge in “safe havens” at the end of the celL-blocks as they had been trained to do by the ODRC. It had been represented to the officers that these areas “were entry proof” due to their construction with steel bars but this proved not to be the case.
Officer Dotson tells us in his memoirs that before this lawsuit was filed, “It’s almost like they were only being kind to us so that we wouldn’t sue them. When we did, it was like ‘the gloves came off’.” Gary Williams, Siege in Lucasville (revised edition), p. 167.
Nevertheless, rather than contesting the truth of the allegations in the officers’ Court of Claims lawsuit, ODRC and the other defendants settled before trial. The amounts of money allocated to particular plaintiffs (one third of which went to their lawyers) included the following:
Peggy Vallandingham . . . . . . . . . . $850,000
Kenneth Daniels . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 150,000
Richard Buffington . . . . . . . . . . . . 120,000
Darrold Clark . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 250,000
John Kemper . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 380,000
Conrad Nagel . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35,000
Larry Dotson . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 120,000
Jeff Ratcliff . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 200,000
Robert Schroeder . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 80,000
Rodney Pennington . . . . . . . . . . . . . 55,000
Harold Fraley . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .50,000
Michael Stump . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25,000
Michael Hensley . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 300,000
In addition, according to Officer Dotson, ODRC settled for $4.1 million a class action filed on behalf of three groups of inmates: those who were killed, those who were injured, and those who lost property. Gary Williams, Siege in Lucasville (revised edition), p. 240.
The revised edition of Officer Dotson’s book offers additional testimony from prison staff and official investigations as to the authorities’ share of responsibility for what happened. Gary Williams, Siege in Lucasville (revised edition), pp. 204-205. Among his observations are these:
۰ “The rotary telephone system at SOCF effectively impeded prompt communication of the disturbance to key institutional staff who were not on-site.” Warden Tate was not notified “until two hours after the initial disturbance.”
۰ “Tactical command was not effectively established and organized by SOCF during the first two hours, thereby forestalling and preempting an early opportunity to rescue five correctional officers and one inmate who had taken refuge in the rear stairwells of L-2, L-4, and L-5.”
۰ “The Disturbance Control Team was not assembled until two hours into the siege (5:00 p.m.); the SOCF Tactical Response Team was not assembled until 5:45 p.m.; . . . inmates had erected a barricade at the lower crash gate into L-corridor, thereby negating any real possibility for launching a successful assault on L-block.”
The last sentence of this book’s revised edition, on page 271, offers the final judgment that ODRC “top-level administrators . . . lit the fuse that led to the explosive riot at SOCF.”
Conclusion and Next Steps
Accordingly, as these essays proceed to examine the conduct of individual defendants and the integrity of their trials, I ask readers to avoid simplistic judgments. The world is not neatly divided into Good Guys and Bad Guys. There is no DNA evidence that might throw conclusive light on what happened in L-block. It would certainly be misguided to say, “There is no reason to doubt the prosecutor’s version of what happened.” But it should be equally unacceptable to say, “I have known defendant so-and-so for years and I cannot imagine him as a murderer.” The case for Lucasville Amnesty can only be made by detailed assessment of the facts.
However, the truth is not altogether inaccessible. In particular, it will be profitable to compare what Witness X testified in one trial with what he testified in others, an exercise too time-consuming for most defense counsel.
We shall begin, one by one, to examine the trials of individual defendants that followed the end of the uprising.
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