Friday, February 16, 2024

Former Kentucky State Prison Sergeant Convicted of Violating Civil Rights of an Inmate and Obstruction of Justice

After a four-day trial, a federal jury yesterday convicted a former Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex (EKCC) sergeant, Eric Nantell, on one count of deprivation of civil rights for his failure to intervene to stop the assault of an inmate, two counts of obstruction for misleading state investigators and one count of making false statements to a special agent of the FBI. Six other officers previously pleaded guilty for their roles in the assault and cover-up, and three of those officers testified for the government at trial.

“The jury’s verdict closes the book on an unfortunate chapter at this correctional center,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “All seven officers who participated in the brutal assault of an inmate or the coordinated cover-up that followed have now been brought to justice. The Justice Department will continue to hold law enforcement accountable for unlawful behavior that deprives those in our jails and prisons of their civil and constitutional rights.”

“Despite being a supervisor entrusted with the custody and care of others, Nantell stood by while officers beat a man, tried to cover up an investigation and lied to law enforcement,” said U.S. Attorney Carlton S. Shier IV for the Eastern District of Kentucky. “This disgraceful conduct not only caused injury to a victim but was an unqualified breach of the public trust and a grave disservice to law enforcement. Holding these officers accountable is an important step in restoring the public trust in law enforcement and protecting the civil rights of everyone.”

“Nantell not only took an oath to protect the inmates who were under his watch, but as a supervisor, he held a position of authority within the prison. By allowing this assault on an inmate to occur and then attempting to cover it up, he blatantly abused his power,” said Special Agent in Charge Michael E. Stansbury of the FBI Louisville Field Office. “The FBI will not stand for law enforcement officials who choose to violate the civil rights of those they are sworn to protect and, therefore, will continue to aggressively investigate allegations of wrongdoing and, ultimately, hold the perpetrators accountable.”

The evidence at trial established that the defendant was a supervisory sergeant at the facility when three officers, two of whom were members of the prison’s internal affairs department, assaulted a non-violent inmate who was lying face-down, wearing handcuffs and leg shackles and isolated in a prison shower cell. Nantell was standing at the door of the shower when the assault began, and he watched the officers repeatedly punch and kick the inmate in the head and back. After silently observing the beating for over 20 seconds, Nantell walked away while the officers continued to beat the inmate.

Within hours of the inmate reporting the abuse, supervisors of EKCC and state detectives of the Kentucky State Police opened an investigation. Nantell joined with other officers in a cover-up scheme to hide the truth. As part of that cover-up, he lied to officers of both agencies as well as a special agent of the FBI.

Six former officers have pleaded guilty in related cases. On July 26, 2023, former EKCC officer Randall Dennis pleaded guilty to one count of deprivation of civil rights based on assault of the inmate and former EKCC officer Nathan Cantrell pleaded guilty to four counts of obstruction of justice for attempting to cover up the assault.

On April 10, 2023, former EKCC officer James Benish pleaded guilty to one count of deprivation of civil rights based on his failure to intervene to protect the inmate and former EKCC supervisor Randy Nickell pleaded guilty to three counts of obstruction based on his efforts to cover up the same assault.

On Aug. 29, 2022, former EKCC officer Jeffery Havens pleaded guilty to one count of deprivation of civil rights based on his assault of the inmate.

Finally, on July 11, 2022, former EKCC officer Derek Mays pleaded guilty to four counts of obstruction of justice based on his efforts to cover up the assault.

In a separate administrative investigation, the Kentucky Internal Investigations Branch (IIB) conducted an independent review of the inmate’s allegations. IIB determined that an assault occurred and that numerous officers had been untruthful about what they saw. As a result of their findings, numerous officers who were involved with the assault were terminated, demoted or voluntarily resigned their positions with the Kentucky Department of Corrections within a year of the incident.

A sentencing hearing is scheduled for June 10. Nantell faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for the deprivation of rights offense, a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison for obstructing state investigators and a maximum penalty of five years in prison for lying to the FBI. A federal district court judge will determine any sentences after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

The FBI Louisville Field Office investigated the case.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Zachary Dembo and Mary Melton for the Eastern District of Kentucky prosecuted the case in partnership with Trial Attorney Thomas Johnson of the Civil Rights Division.

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