Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, January 11, 2005


Page 1


Prisoner Gets Opportunity to Present Case Alleging Guard Violated His Eighth Amendment Rights


By a MetNews Staff Writer


A prisoner will get his day in court to present his case that Pelican Bay State Prison guards violated his Eighth Amendment rights when he was beaten during an interrogation, under a ruling yesterday by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The panel, in an opinion by Senior Judge John T. Noonan, affirmed the district court’s denial of a summary judgment motion by defendant and sends the case to trial.

The inmate, Christopher Watts, complained that he was attacked by guard John McKinney during an interrogation.  In a handwritten declaration opposing McKinney’s motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, Watts said he told McKinney that he did not know of any guards bringing knives or drugs into the prison, and then asked that his attorney be present for the interrogation. 

The declaration went on to describe threats to his family and himself by McKinneyWatts said McKinney took him to a holding cell, slammed his head into the wall, and then kicked him in the genitals and the back while Watts was lying on the floor with his hands behind his back in handcuffs.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston of the Northern District of California found there was a triable issue of fact as to whether McKinney acted “maliciously and sadistically” in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The district judge also determined that McKinney was not entitled to qualified immunity at the pretrial stage because the act attributed to McKinney violated a clearly established constitutional right of which a reasonable person would have known.

McKinney’s counsel, from the Attorney General’s Office, contended that Watts’ declaration did not describe an Eighth Amendment violation and described the incident as a kick in the groin.  The attorney general argued that a reasonable prison officer would not necessarily believe this conduct unlawful.

Noonon dismissed the argument, suggesting the attorney general’s zealous advocacy for his client “needs to be tempered by commonsense.”

“To suppose that any reasonable person, let alone a trained prison officer, would not know that kicking a helpless person’s genitals is cruel and unusual conduct is beyond belief,” the jurist wrote.

“The Supreme Court did not need to create a catalogue of all the acts by which cruel and sadistic purpose to harm another would be manifest; but if it had, such an act would be near the top of the list,” Noonan concluded.

Senior Judge Betty B. Fletcher concurred, as did Judge Sidney Thomas.

The case is Watts v. McKinney, 03-16665.


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