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AG seeks to expose inmate identities in rape suit

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

The Michigan Attorney General’s Office is attempting to expose the identities of several current and former inmates who allege in lawsuits they were raped in state prisons. One of them recently was stabbed 27 times by other prisoners, according to prison records.

A pair of lawsuits filed on behalf of 11 John Does — all teen offenders charged as adults — target the Michigan Department of Corrections, several prison officials and Gov. Rick Snyder, and allege the teens were forced into sex acts by adult prisoners through violence or threats. In several instances, corrections facility employees are accused of sexual harassment, allowing assaults to happen or ignoring requests for help, according to the suits winding their way through state and federal courts.

A circuit court judge allowed the state case to proceed with the plaintiffs — juvenile offenders housed in prisons with adult inmates — not being identified by name in court documents. It was an attempt to prevent retaliation by other inmates and Corrections Department staff members.

John Doe 10 entered the prison system at age 16 and is now 20. On Feb. 19, “prisoners who became aware that he reported his sexual assaults” stabbed him repeatedly, according to court documents. A spokesman for the department confirmed that the assault took place, but said the victim told prison officials the assault began after he refused to allow other inmates to take his possessions.

On Monday, the Attorney General’s Office filed a brief arguing the anonymity protection should not apply to John Does 8-11, since the circuit court’s initial decision applied to the first seven plaintiffs only. In addition, an office spokeswoman said the anonymity causes problems for the state’s defense.

“We are not seeking to publicize the names of plaintiffs, that would serve no purpose for us,” said Andrea Bitely, spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Schuette, in response to questions. “The restrictions on use of the plaintiffs’ names makes it difficult for our attorneys to conduct discovery, which is obviously essential to doing our job in uncovering information about the allegations.”

It’s an approach one official at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan called unusual.

“It may be the attorney general’s job to represent the state in a lawsuit, but this kind of tactic raises questions about whether the state is trying to intimidate these victims into dropping the lawsuit or even trying punish them for speaking out,” said Daniel Korobkin, ACLU deputy legal director. “Without anonymity, rape victims are left open to ridicule, humiliation and, in some cases, violent reprisals.”

The state’s brief argues there is “no reason at all” that one plaintiff, John Doe 11, should not be named since he has finished serving his time and given an interview to The Detroit News.

“John Doe 11 has given at least one media interview revealing the intimate details of his alleged assault and sufficient facts from which his identity may be determined,” the state argued in its brief.

The state’s filing also argues that John Does 8-11 are in no danger from prison personnel, calling that insinuation “offensive and completely unsupported.” The brief adds: “Any threat of unlawful physical harm would most likely stem from other inmates.”

Plaintiffs’ attorneys say more than 200 other inmates have responded to a class-action notice in attempt to join the 11 John Does. The Michigan Court of Appeals is deciding whether the case can move forward as a class action.

AG office subpoenas media

Schuette’s handling of the case has already drawn attention. The Attorney General’s Office tried in early March to subpoena a Huffington Post reporter’s notes from interviews with two of the John Does in different prisons. Another subpoena was served on Michigan Public Radio for audio and video recordings of an interview conducted with a plaintiffs’ attorney, Deborah LaBelle.

All were quickly withdrawn after the requests received media attention. Schuette said he didn’t know about the subpoenas and personally apologized to the journalist and radio station.

Schuette has long said he is an advocate for victims’ rights. Thirteen months ago, he launched his re-election campaign in Midland by touting his record of support for those who have experienced sexual assault.

“If you are a victim of rape, then I am your voice,” he said.

But Bitely said the Attorney General’s office has a responsibility first and foremost to the state.

“The ... main obligation here is to defend state departments against lawsuits, so that is our first duty in this situation,” she said.

Justice ‘not always swift’

The state lawsuit promises to take a while. The state recently filed a scheduling plan that calls for a trial to begin in November 2017. Plaintiffs’ attorneys filed their own plan, suggesting that the trial begin 19 months earlier.

Any decision on scheduling is on hold while the Court of Appeals decides whether the case can go forward as a class action.

Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor, said a November 2017 target date was not beyond the norm.

“For civil litigation, anything inside of five years is not the norm,” Henning said. “Justice is not always swift, especially in the civil arena.”

A trial that ends roughly around the start of 2018 could pose political problems for Schuette, said Bill Ballenger, an analyst with Inside Michigan Politics. Schuette, a Republican, is widely expected to run for governor since Rick Snyder is term-limited.

“Anything that happens with the case as it nears the fateful year of 2018 is likely to get ramped-up attention, Ballenger said.

“If there are any stumbles for Bill Schuette, or if people feel he is on the wrong side of an issue, or if he looks overly protective of the state’s position, you know, the Democrats will obviously make sure everyone knows about it.”


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