Fight for Justice Against Oneida Prison Guard Pays Off
JUAN GONZALEZ. New York Daily News. New York, N.Y.: September 18, 2008
Copyright Daily News, L.P. September 18, 2008
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Everyone Angel Martinez talked to over the last five years urged him to forget about his crazy lawsuit against guards and officials at the Oneida state prison in upstate Rome.
After all, Martinez would not normally elicit much sympathy. A former heroin addict, he has twice been convicted of attempted robbery. By 2003, he was 40 years old and had spent more than a decade in prison – all of which he acknowledges he deserved.
While locked up, he got his GED, earned an associate’s degree and was a model prisoner – until Feb. 25, 2003, when a minor dispute with a guard ended with him being charged with assault.
Several months later, Martinez filed a complaint in federal court. He claimed that more than half a dozen Oneida employees violated his civil rights by repeatedly beating him, refusing him medical care for his injuries, falsely charging him with assault and tossing him in an isolation cell for nearly a year.
To make matters worse, Martinez had no witnesses. It was his word against the testimony of seven guards. He also had no lawyer. And, of course, he had no money.
Even if his civil complaint made it to federal court, his friends and family warned him, the trial would be upstate, where almost everyone knows someone who works in a prison. Not exactly the kind of jury pool likely to show sympathy for a Puerto Rican inmate from the Bronx.
“I didn’t care what anybody said,” Martinez said Thursday. “I was determined to face those guards in court and get justice.”
Last November, Martinez, who completed his sentence in 2006, walked into the offices of Glen Miller, a veteran lawyer in lower Manhattan.
“He came in carrying two suitcases filled with legal papers he’d been submitting by himself for years,” Miller said. “He was depressed and dejected, but when my partner and I listened to his story and when we saw the quality of his legal work, we said to ourselves, ‘This guy is telling the truth.'”
A grand jury in Rome refused to indict Martinez in the assault, Miller discovered. Several guards told the grand jury Martinez assaulted them, but the only injuries to the guards were bruises to their fists, prison records showed.
Medical records and photos of Martinez, who is 5-feet-7 and just 140 pounds, showed broken ribs and a face that had been pulverized.
A few weeks after his arrest, Martinez calmly told his story to an all-white grand jury. He claimed a guard began to beat him after he threatened to file a complaint for mistreatment. He gave vivid details of several more assaults in solitary.
The guards testified as well, but their accounts were so contradictory that the grand jury immediately dismissed the assault case against Martinez.
Prison officials ignored the ruling and kept him in solitary confinement for 344 days on the same charges the grand jury rejected.
While in solitary, Martinez began studying law. He filed scores of motions and wrote to lawyers all over the state pleading for help.
Federal Judge David Peebles in Syracuse began to pay attention. The judge eventually rejected the state attorney general’s motion to dismiss the case, paving the way for a trial.
Last Friday, after a week of testimony, an eight-member jury ruled unanimously in favor of Martinez and awarded him $1.4 million in damages.
The jurors were so upset at what the guards and prison officials did that they took the unusual step of sending a note to the judge urging that the assailants “be brought in front of the grand jury for possible criminal charges.”
“We know this is not our job,” the jurors wrote, “but we feel strong on this and wanted to let you know.”
Miller is trying to get Martinez to go to law school.
“His motions were better than 80% of the lawyers I know,” he said.
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