A federal jury acquitted two Philadelphia prison guards Tuesday on charges that they violated the civil rights of a Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility inmate whom they repeatedly punched and kicked while trying to restrain last year.
The panel took less than six hours to reject prosecutors’ claims that Robert Berger, 35, and Nathaniel Morris, 43, used excessive force and later lied about it on official reports.
Although disappointed, U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain said he respected the jury’s verdict and stood by his office’s decision to pursue the case.
“Cases involving the alleged violation of civil rights are very important,” he said. “But they can also be difficult to prosecute.”
Berger exhaled as the verdict was announced. He leaped to his feet and hugged his attorney, Lawrence J. Bozzelli, once the jurors had filed out of the room.
“From day one,” Bozzelli said afterward, “he said he just was trying to do his job the best he could.”
Tuesday’s outcome followed a six-day trial featuring testimony from nearly two dozen witnesses. But the case ultimately hung on the jury’s interpretation of security camera footage of the 2018 beating.
The inmate, Lamar Rozier, 30 and a pretrial detainee at the prison on State Road in Holmesburg, was left with cuts and bruises on his face and two fractured ribs.
The recording showed Berger guiding the resistant inmate into a holding area to await transfer to solitary confinement. When Rozier yanked the door closed, nearly hitting Berger in the face, the correctional officer charged in after him.
Both men assumed a fighting stance. But Rozier dropped his hands and backed into a corner before the first punch was thrown. Berger — and then Morris — proceeded to punch Rozier in the head and torso, then kick him once he collapsed.
Neither side challenged the video’s veracity, but what happened before, after, and during that caught-on-camera scene remained in contention at trial. Even the words used to describe what jurors were watching became a point of dispute. The defense relied on technical phrases like “heavy hand strikes” and “foot strikes,” while government lawyers deployed more colloquial terms like “uppercut,” “foot-stomping,” and “butt-whooping.”
Attorneys for Berger and Morris maintained the video, which did not contain audio, failed to show the whole story. Although Rozier may have appeared to be cowering, he continued to hurl insults and ignored repeated orders to lower himself to the ground, Morris’ lawyer Natasha Taylor-Smith said during closing arguments Monday.
She maintained that by deploying physical force, Berger and Morris were simply following prison policies, which warn officers not to assume that a combative inmate has been neutralized just because he appears to surrender.
What’s more, said Bozzelli, Rozier had a history of attacking guards. During an earlier stint at Curran-Fromhold, he threw his urine in the face of a guard trying to serve him dinner.
Prosecutors scoffed at those explanations, noting that no matter what Rozier might have done in the past or said during his encounter with Berger and Morris, the video clearly showed him lowering his hands and backing away before Berger’s first uppercut. At no point, they maintained, did Rozier fight back.
“You don’t need a book to say, ‘Don’t kick a man when he’s down,’” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Faithe Moore Taylor. “This is not a street fight."
Although the jury was kept unaware during the trial, a prison disciplinary panel that reviewed the incident last year determined Berger had used excessive force and suspended him without pay for 30 days. Morris was reprimanded for not first using pepper spray to defuse the situation and not having handcuffs on him at the time, but his citations ultimately were dismissed.
Both men were placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the criminal case.