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Acting as own lawyer, inmate awarded $185,000

Jason Cato
| Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008

A federal jury on Monday awarded $185,000 to a state prison inmate who represented himself in a civil trial against the state Department of Corrections and several employees.

Andre L. Jacobs, 26, claimed that prison guards at SCI-Pittsburgh illegally confiscated and destroyed about 150 pages of his legal documents after discovering they were part of a lawsuit against them. After deliberating for three days, eight jurors returned a unanimous verdict against two guards and a prison spokeswoman.

The jury found that former Capt. Thomas McConnell and Lt. Gregory Giddens interfered with Jacobs' access to the courts by taking his legal papers. Those men, along with prison spokeswoman Carol Scire, retaliated against Jacobs and conspired to violate his civil rights, the jury concluded. Giddens defamed Jacobs by harming his reputation and causing mental anguish and humiliation, the jury ruled.

"I didn't ask for any money (at first). I didn't ask for any guards to be punished," Jacobs said last week while delivering closing arguments after a three-week trial before U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti. "The only thing I asked for throughout the whole process was that my legal documents be returned so I could proceed with my legal matters."

The jury exonerated 10 corrections employees, including state Corrections Secretary Jeffrey A. Beard.

Department of Corrections officials could not be reached for comment.

Jacobs claimed staff at the state prison in Woods Run in September 2003 confiscated his legal documents from another inmate helping with his case. The next day, Jacobs said guards searched his cell and seized more documents.

He accused prison employees of creating fake documents and conducting bogus investigations to refute his claims against them. Court records show Jacobs was accused of refusing an order, possessing contraband and loaning or borrowing property after the seizures, which resulted in 30 days' confinement.

During an impassioned closing argument, Jacobs urged the jurors to send a message.

"Within the Department of Corrections, prisoners have no voice. Prisoners have no avenue for valid claims or relief," he said. "You are the only voice. You are the only ears for prisoners."

Assistant Attorney General Scott Bradley told jurors that Jacobs was using this lawsuit "as a ploy" to revisit his criminal case by smearing correctional employees.

"If all the defendants were lying, why wouldn't all of their testimony be the same?" Bradley asked. "Why would there be inconsistencies?"

Jacobs, originally from Harrisburg, has been in state custody since 1998, when he was 15, according to court documents. He is serving five to 18 years in state prison. Details of his original conviction are unclear.

He is being held at the state prison in Fayette County.

In 2006, Jacobs was convicted of attacking federal marshals inside the U.S. District Courthouse, Downtown, following another civil trial that he lost. Prosecutors said Jacobs used his handcuffs during the March 2005 assault outside an elevator to injure a marshal's wrist. He was sentenced to 17 years and five months in federal prison, to run concurrently with his state time. If he is released from state prison early, he would have to serve out the remainder of the federal term.

Jacobs has two additional civil cases pending against the Department of Corrections and its employees. They are tentatively scheduled to go to trial next year.

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