Human Rights Coalition Courtroom Report

Human Rights Coalition

Lady Justice by Leonard JeffersonMay 18, Harrisburg PA: After two days of testimony from state prisoners and PA Department of Corrections staff, a six-person jury ruled against Ravanna Spencer in his lawsuit against guards who beat him during a cell extraction at SCI-Camp Hill in 2006.

The verdict came as no surprise to those who’d been watching the antics of Mr. Spencer's court-appointed attorney, J. Palmer Lockard, and is a cautionary tale for anyone forced to rely on an attorney whom they themselves did not choose.

On May 13, 2006, while a prisoner in SCI-Camp Hill’s Special Management Unit, Mr. Spencer was one of at least two men who were denied food during the dinner meal. When his attempts to speak to the guards and to a commanding officer were denied, he covered his cell door window in protest (a violation of prison rules often used by prisoners in “solitary confinement” units to seek the attention of higher-ups). After ignoring orders to uncover the window, he was sprayed with OC (pepper) spray through his food slot and then taken from his cell by a “cell extraction” team. During the extraction, he was beaten, handcuffed and shackled, taken to another cell, beaten further, had his clothes cut off, and was left naked without medical attention for his injuries. After the extraction, prisoners in nearby cells report that guards bragged of “stomping the shit” out of him. After nearly four years of acting as his own lawyer, Mr. Spencer succeeded in bringing his case to trial and in getting the court to appoint him a pro-bono attorney. And that’s when his troubles started.

The trial provided an excellent example of how not to represent someone. Attorney Lockard is a professor at Widener University’s Harrisburg Civil Law Clinic and the author of a 2008 article in Widener Law Magazine that highlights the need for attorneys to be familiar with their witnesses’ testimony. During this trial, however, he appeared surprised and taken aback by his witnesses’ answers, even those of his client, Mr. Spencer. Lockard seemed more interested in ingratiating himself with the court and with opposing counsel than in representing his client: he did not interview any of the witnesses prior to the trial, was not familiar with the claims contained in Mr. Spencer's civil complaint, and seemed not to have even reviewed his sole exhibit (video footage of the beating) with his client.

His halfhearted and ill-informed performance was not lost on the jury. In contrast with PA DOC attorney Lisa Baisal’s methodical, step-by-step solicitation of the DOC witnesses’ experiences as prison guards, Lockard led jurors down a vague and muddled path, conspicuously avoiding any questions about the identity of the person who can clearly be seen on the videotape punching Mr. Spencer as he lay prone and shackled on a metal bedframe, surrounded by guards. When Baisal made the astonishing claim that guards needed to beat Mr. Spencer (while shackled, handcuffed, and facedown on a metal bedframe) in order to take a pillow away from him, Lockard declined to challenge the issue, choosing instead to silence his client (as he did repeatedly throughout the trial) with a pinched face and irritated wave of the hand as Mr. Spencer urged him to speak up. He continued this all the way through his closing statement, in which he called his client a criminal and suggested to the jury that finding in his favor would be a painful but possibly necessary task—if their consciences could bear it.

Faced with this ineffective and shameful display and with PLRA (Prison Litigation Reform Act) requirements that they find specific individuals responsible for specific civil rights violations, jurors were forced to find in favor of the guards. Though it is possible that even if individual guards had been linked to specific violations, the jury might have still found against Mr. Spencer; we’ll never know because Lockard didn’t even ask.

Lawyers such as Lockard who prioritize the appearance of courtroom gentility over the rights of prisoners are participants in an extensive, largely hidden, fully rationalized system of state torture. Less than one month before the trial, 7 men were “cell extracted” at SCI Dallas for protesting guard abuse. Men were repeatedly sprayed with mace, shocked with tasers, punched, kicked, stripped naked, and left in restraints for hours. One of these men was Carrington Keys, who four years earlier had been cell extracted, maced, tasered, and beaten in the Camp Hill SMU after protesting his food tray missing items—on the same day and in the same unit as Ravanna Spencer. By sabotaging these cases and helping shield the DOC from accountability and scrutiny, Lockard and his ilk ensure that the cycle of brutality continues.

For people whose Constitutional rights are violated in prisons, this scenario is all too familiar. If you are bringing a pro se suit against the DOC, you may very well find yourself saddled with a Lockard of your own! With this in mind, we offer the following suggestions:

Ask your (prospective) attorney detailed questions about their experience in litigating civil rights trials on prison issues: How many cases have they tried? How many have they won? Make them give you actual numbers!
Ask them what they expect to gain from representing you? If they say something other than “justice”, or if they cannot give a credible explanation, stay clear.
Ask them if they will fight for you! If they don’t say something in the spirit of “fuck yeah!”, you may be better off on your own!