Court: Inmates may be charged in riot even if they never attacked COs

The violence started with a fight between two Pelican Bay State Prison inmates in a high-security yard in 2017

By Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — Inmates who took part in a riot at Pelican Bay State Prison that injured eight guards can be charged with assault and mayhem even if they never physically attacked the guards, a state appeals court has ruled.

Prisoners who took part in the melee would have known that the assaults were a "natural and probable consequence," the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco said Tuesday. The ruling reversed a Del Norte County judge's decision to dismiss the felony charges against four inmates.

The violence started with a fight between two prisoners in a high-security yard in May 2017, the court said. Guards responded with clubs and gas grenades, and one shot and wounded one of the inmates.

Angry inmates then charged the officers in large numbers, beating and kicking them, the court said. One guard was knocked unconscious and others suffered serious injuries, none of them life-threatening. Five inmates were shot and wounded by prison guards.

Prosecutors charged four inmates with committing mayhem against four guards and with assault likely to cause serious injury against eight guards. A defense lawyer said the prisoners had actually tried to stop the use of excessive force.

A county magistrate found no evidence that the four men had struck anyone and said it was unclear they had even taken part in the riot. Superior Court Judge Leonard LaCasse then dismissed the charges, saying prosecutors had presented evidence of a "tumultuous riot situation" but no proof the four defendants had done anything.

But the appeals court said there was evidence the four men had participated in the riot — one had a gunshot wound, two had blood on their clothing, and an officer said the fourth man had tried to lunge at him. So the only issue was whether rioters would reasonably have known that officers were likely to be assaulted and seriously injured, the court said.

"The riot involved the use of force or violence by numerous inmates against correctional officers who were significantly outnumbered," and assaults were "reasonably foreseeable," Justice Tracie Brown said in the 3-0 ruling.

Gabriel Bassan, one of the defense lawyers, said Wednesday he disagreed with the court's decision to overrule a magistrate and a judge "who both found that there was insufficient evidence to even bring them to trial, never mind convict them."


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