Jury finds former Woods Run prison guard guilty on 27 counts
An Allegheny County jury on Thursday found a former guard at the State Correctional Institution in Woods Run guilty on 27 counts that he abused inmates, but not guilty on more serious charges that he sexually assaulted them.
Prosecutors accused Harry Nicoletti, 61, of Coraopolis of targeting inmates convicted of sex crimes involving minors. The convictions include one felony county of solicitation and misdemeanor charges of official oppression, simple assault, solicitation, indecent exposure and making terroristic threats.
The jury of seven women and five men deliberated over three days before acquitting Nicoletti of 52 counts, including a dozen felony counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and 13 felony counts of institutional sexual assault. Jurors could not come to a verdict on one count that Nicoletti brought illegal contraband into the prison.
“The allegations were horrific,” said Nicoletti's defense attorney Stephen Colafella. “In the grand scheme of things, it could have been substantially worse.”
Nicoletti declined comment but appeared relieved as he exited the courtroom. His wife cried. He is free on bond until sentencing March 27.
State corrections officials say the September 2011 arrest of Nicoletti and six fellow guards put an end to the problems at the facility where about 1,700 male inmates are housed. At least one prisoners' advocate said he doesn't see a need for a widespread overhaul of the system.
“Hopefully this decision will provide some closure for the victims in this case,” said state Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton. “We would like to stress that this individual's actions are not representative of the great work the staff at SCI-Pittsburgh do on a daily basis.”
The trial before Common Pleas Judge David R. Cashman lasted 11 days and featured 58 witnesses.
Colafella said he thinks one inmate's story “spun out of control,” leading others to accuse his client of more serious accusations like sexual assault and ordering inmates to beat up others. The jury, he said, “clearly rejected” those claims.
Colafella said he believed the jury stopped short of finding his client guilty of the more serious sexual charges because of questions about the witnesses' credibility.
Of the 22 inmate accusers, 21 testified at the trial and the jury found Nicoletti guilty of at least one charge related to 13 of them. The jury found him not guilty on charges related to 8 inmates who testified.
“I think the jury's message was they just simply didn't believe some of the witnesses,” Colafella said.
Assistant District Attorney Jon Pittman said the charges were not a reflection on the “hardworking people in our state prison system.”
The prison, located on the banks of the Ohio River, remains under federal investigation. The charges spurred personnel changes at the prison, with the state removing Superintendent Melvin Lockett and two deputy superintendents.
Department of Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel told the Tribune-Review last month that he was confident his department addressed the situation with the personnel moves. Wetzel said if authorities recommend additional changes, “if it's to improve the system, we're on board.”
David La Torre, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers Association, said the union does not comment on criminal matters.
William M. DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a Philadelphia nonprofit that advocates for inmates and their families, said the case might not warrant systematic changes because Nicoletti broke prison rules.
“It's a 24 hour-a-day operation and the upper level management is not always there to see what's going on so that means there are opportunities for people to do bad things,” DiMascio said.
A jury in December found former Woods Run guard Tory Kelly, 41, of Aliquippa guilty of threatening and assaulting an inmate. Kelly is scheduled to be sentenced March 20. Two former guards, Jerome Lynch, 35, of the North Side and Bruce Lowther, 34, of West Newton are awaiting trial. Charges against three others were dropped or dismissed, and they have been reinstated.
The charges against the seven Pittsburgh guards spurred several federal civil lawsuits. Colafella said Thursday's verdict should make the lawsuits against his client “dead in the water.” Robert Peirce, an attorney representing a transsexual inmate who filed federal civil lawsuit against the state and guards including Nicoletti, said the conviction validates the complaints.
Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.