A New York jury has found five corrections officers guilty of felony charges for brutally beating an inmate in 2012 at the notorious Rikers Island jail complex.
The five men were found guilty on all counts, including the most serious charge of attempted gang assault against inmate Jahmal Lightfoot. The beating left Lightfoot "with fractured eye sockets and a broken nose," Reuters reported.
The verdict at the State Supreme Court in the Bronx is seen as a "major victory for law enforcement officials who have struggled to successfully prosecute correction officers accused of brutality," The New York Times reported. Such cases have proved difficult to prosecute in the past due to "negative perceptions and credibility problems with victims who are in jails and prisons."
"Today's convictions make a strong statement: Savagely beating an inmate will not be tolerated in the city's jails," Mark G. Peters, commissioner of the city's Investigation Department, told the newspaper.
Likewise, Jonathan S. Abady, a lawyer who has been involved in other brutality cases from Rikers, told the Times: "Unfortunately, successful prosecutions of correction officers for misconduct and abuse of prisoners are rare."
Among those convicted is former Assistant Chief for Security Eliseo Perez, who retired from that position in 2013, according to The Associated Press. A sixth officer was accused of assisting in covering up the attack but was found not guilty, the wire service reported.
The beating occurred during a contraband search, when Lightfoot "locked eyes with Perez," the AP reported. This is how prosecutors describe the attack, according to the wire service:
"Angered by the stare-down, Perez shouted out to a captain and five officers that Lightfoot 'thinks he's tough' and should be beaten, prosecutors said.
"Authorities said the guards led Lightfoot into a small cell and then pummeled him so severely he had fractured eye sockets, a broken nose and bruises that left his eyes swollen shut. Prosecutors also alleged the officers, in an effort to explain Lightfoot's injuries, filed false reports claiming Lightfoot had slashed an officer with a sharpened piece of metal."
Lawyers defending the corrections officers had argued that Lightfoot was lying and the officers were doing their jobs, Reuters reported. "This is the most upsetting verdict I have ever seen in 36 years of criminal defense practice," Robert Feldman, who defended Perez in the trial, told the wire service.
According to Human Rights Watch, "staff brutality has been persistent for decades" at Rikers, which holds more than 10,000 inmates. Court documents from a separate class action lawsuit said 43.7 percent of male inmates ages 16, 17, and 18 in custody as of October 2012 "have been subjected to use of force by staff on at least one occasion."
These convictions come amid an uptick in prosecutions of corrections officers, the Times reported:
"In the past four years, in addition to the Lightfoot case, the Bronx district attorney's office has prosecuted 26 other correction officers in cases of excessive force against inmates or suspected cover-ups. Eleven of them still have open cases. Of the remaining 15 officers, nine were convicted and six were acquitted, according to prosecutors."
Following Tuesday's verdict, Lightfoot said "justice got served," according to the Times. "They beat me almost to death," he continued, "and I hope that nobody has to go through that."
The convicted officers are reportedly scheduled to be sentenced in September. The AP quotes City Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte as saying that officers guilty of felonies would be fired and that he had "zero tolerance for any illegal behavior on the part of staff."