No delay in Arkansas trial for juvenile detention officers accused of conspiring to abuse, judge says

Dec 6, 2018 |

Written By  Linda Satter
November 24, 2018
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

A jury trial for two former juvenile detention center officers accused of conspiring to abuse jailed teenagers at the White River Juvenile Detention Center in Batesville will begin Dec. 11 as scheduled, a federal judge said Wednesday.

But U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson hadn’t issued an order by the close of business Friday on whether he will grant or deny a request to move the trial from Little Rock to Batesville.

The trial stems from a May 5, 2017, indictment charging Thomas Farris, 48; Jason Benton, 43; and Will Ray, 27, with conspiring between 2012 and 2014 to injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate at least four boys held at the facility in violation of the boys’ constitutional rights.

Benton pleaded guilty April 4 to two of five charges he faced — deprivation of rights and falsification of records — and has yet to be sentenced. In return for his guilty pleas, prosecutors dropped his three remaining charges of conspiracy to violate juveniles’ rights through intimidation or injury, assaulting a juvenile resulting in bodily injury, and another falsification of records charge.

According to Benton’s plea agreement, he admitted that on May 19, 2013, he willfully deprived a 15-year-old inmate identified only as “G.B.” of his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by causing bodily injury, and that on May 20, 2013, he made false entries to obstruct an investigation of the incident.

The agreement states that the incident took place in the facility’s Max Unit. It says that the boy folded up his mattress, picked it up and turned toward his cell door after Benton instructed him to come out with the mattress because he was being placed on disciplinary lockdown. As the boy turned to face the door, Benton pepper-sprayed him in the face from a few inches away and continued spraying as the boy tried to turn his head away, he admitted. He further admitted he then “took G.B. to the ground,” causing bodily injury, even though the inmate didn’t act aggressively or pose a physical threat to the correctional officer.

Benton also admitted falsely writing in an incident report the next day that the boy “dropped his mattress, turned toward me and attempted to lunge at me, with his hands clenched.”

Benton is facing up to 10 years in prison on the deprivation of rights charge and up to 20 years on the falsification charge. He is expected to face sentencing enhancements for committing the crime under color of law, willfully obstructing justice.

The remaining defendants, Farris and Ray, face two charges apiece at trial: the conspiracy charge and a second charge of aiding and abetting the commission of a civil-rights violation.

The indictment says the three men conspired “to unjustifiably assault, injure and physically punish juvenile inmates at White River who were compliant, not physically resisting, and posing no threat, including by spraying them with oleoresin capsicum or pepper spray, and using excessive physical force with Tasers.”

The indictment further alleges that the correctional officers shut compliant inmates in their cells after pepper-spraying them to “let them cook,” rather than immediately decontaminating them.

The indictment said the men’s captain, Peggy Kendrick, “required and encouraged” correctional officers to make their reports “look good” by falsely justifying uses of force, and rewarded officers by handing out desirable assignments and failing to discipline them, and even rehiring them after they left.

Kendrick and one of her lieutenants, Dennis R. Fuller Jr., “perpetuated an environment at White River that allowed the defendants to unlawfully assault juvenile inmates without consequence,” the indictment states.

Kendrick, 44, and Fuller, 41, were charged separately with conspiring to violate the inmates’ civil rights, and both pleaded guilty April 26, 2017, before U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr.

Kendrick admitted to charges of conspiracy, deprivation of rights and obstruction of justice, agreeing that she conspired to violate the inmates’ Eighth Amendment and due-process rights, resulting in injuries to a 16-year-old female inmate who was pepper-sprayed while standing in a corner of her cell in a non-threatening manner. Kendrick faces up to 10 years in prison on each of the first two charges and up to 20 years on the third charge.

She admitted that she also punished inmates by placing them on lockdown in their cells for minor infractions and for longer than warranted, and that she placed them in a cell that was known to be extremely cold in winter and hot in the summer in order to punish them.

Fuller admitted pepper-spraying “G.D.,” a 14-year-old boy who had been asleep in his cell, in the face with pepper-spray and then letting him “cook,” with Kendrick’s permission, on Nov. 13, 2013, later falsely claiming that the boy was beating on his cell door and screaming.
Kendrick and Fuller are also awaiting sentencing.

On Nov. 14, Ray’s attorneys, Bill Bristow of Jonesboro and Barrett Moore of Batesville, asked that Wilson allow the case against Farris and Ray to be tried in Batesville, in the northern district of the Eastern District of Arkansas, instead of in Little Rock, which is in the western division. They cited convenience for the defendants, purported victims and witnesses. Farris joined the request Tuesday, through attorney Nicki Nicolo of North Little Rock.

Federal prosecutors opposed the request for a change of venue, as well as Nicolo’s request to postpone the trial because a second attorney who was helping her has suddenly become unavailable.

In a response to the prosecutors’ opposition, Bristow and Ray cited “the government’s overwhelming discovery production of 5,545 discrete documents, which includes 389 videos that the undersigned estimates each averaged 40 minutes in length.” They said these documents were provided in addition to other material the prosecutors have allowed defense attorneys to review at government offices.