CLEARFIELD – The trial got under way Monday in Clearfield County Court for one of the inmates allegedly involved in the April 28, 2015 riot at the State Correctional Institution at Houtzdale.
Norman Wothman, 52, a state prison inmate, is charged with three counts each of aggravated assault, conspiracy/ aggravated assault, assault by prisoner, conspiracy/assault by prisoner, simple assault and conspiracy/simple assault and one count each of riot, conspiracy/riot, disorderly conduct and conspiracy/disorderly conduct.
Before the start of trial, defense attorney Joseph Ryan, motioned on behalf of Wothman to have the jury panel dismissed in order to select a new one.
Ryan advised that 150 people appeared for jury selection last month and all were Caucasian. Wothman, who is African-American, wanted a new jury panel, which included more minorities, he said.
Because of the small minority population in Clearfield County, Ryan said Wothman wanted the case heard out of county.
District Attorney William A. Show Jr. opposed, saying these issues were not raised at jury selection. Senior Judge David Grine, who is specially presiding from Centre County, then denied both of the motions.
Ryan proceeded to advise the court that Wothman wanted to represent himself. Grine appointed Ryan to remain on stand-by to assist Wothman during the trial if necessary.
During his opening statements, Shaw provided a roadmap of the witnesses and evidence the commonwealth would present to show Wothman had engaged in behavior that instigated an assault on corrections staff and the riot at SCI Houtzdale.
Wothman countered, arguing that he didn’t care about anything but the truth and was going to be “blunt” and “straight” in presenting his side of the story.
He likened this case to all of the others where officers “go beyond the call of duty” in dealing with African-American men. Prison, he said, was a dangerous environment and inmates act violently toward each other.
“They got to break it up, right, and that’s when they beat the [expletive] out of us,” Wothman said. “We have to take so much.” He argued he wasn’t trying to hurt anyone but instead trying to help another inmate and human being who he felt was the victim.
Wothman told jurors he could have just taken a plea deal in the case, but he wanted them to hear the other side of the story. “Don’t let the truth fall by the wayside,” he said. “I have no reason to lie.”
A corrections officer testified that he was working in the south yard around 2:30 p.m. April 28, 2015, and there were three of them who were out there with about 500 inmates. He observed inmate Richard Adams throwing a baseball and hitting another inmate with it.
Upon being hit in his face, the inmate fell to the ground, at which point Adams began assaulting him. He radioed the inmate-on-inmate assault to the control center to get the cameras on it, and he responded to that area of the yard.
While he was responding to the scene, Adams started to walk away from the injured inmate and him. The officer said he began to follow Adams and gave him multiple verbal commands to stop and cuff up. Adams didn’t comply.
According to the officer, he attempted to talk to Adams, telling him that he didn’t want to fight with him and asking to please cuff up to get it over with. “It could have been over and done with then and three, but he refused all orders,” he testified.
When a second officer and sergeant showed up on scene, he said Adams took a “fighting stance” and began “dancing around.” He said it was apparent that Adams was going to resist and not going peacefully.
The officer put Adams in a bear hug to restrain him, and they took him to the ground to try to cuff him. While struggling to gain control of Adams, they were alerted by radio that the inmates were coming. “I glanced up and the inmates were swarming us,” he said.
The officer said he only had one of Adams’ hands cuffed when inmates began to drag Adams away from the corrections staff, and he went with him in the process. He was struck in the face and also felt inmates kicking and hitting him here and there.
He remembered seeing two other corrections officers who had been knocked out, and there was blood all around them. He was then taken to the SCI Houtzdale medical department and then to UPMC Altoona.
Under cross-examination, Wothman said he was sorry to the officer for hitting him. When he asked why he felt this incident occurred, the officer testified that Adams had caused a riot at another state prison before being moved to SCI Houtzdale.
The second officer who took the stand next said he responded to assist with an inmate assault. Adams was refusing to comply with their verbal commands, and while he was resisting and becoming more aggressive, other inmates came and began to assault them.
The members of corrections staff at the scene, he said, were kicked, punched, etc., about their heads and bodies. He was taken to the SCI Houtzdale’s medical department and then to Altoona for treatment of a gash to his head as well as neck and shoulder injuries, which are still affecting him.
A lieutenant testified that he was called for a fight between inmates in the south yard. He was advised one had been cuffed without incident, but the second inmate, Adams, was resisting officers’ orders.
Before he’d arrived at the scene, he watched Adams put his hands up like he wanted to fight. He was taken to the ground by corrections staff, which he said was standard protocol in order to regain control of an inmate.
Upon his arrival, the lieutenant gave several orders, which Adams didn’t comply with, and then Wothman grabbed him and screamed in his face. “… That’s the last thing I remember,” he told jurors, as he was knocked out during the inmates’ assault on corrections staff.
The next thing he remembered was waking up in the fetal position in the yard. He was taken to SCI Houtzdale’s medical department and then to Altoona where he was hospitalized due to his injuries.
The lieutenant told jurors he suffered a broken clavicle and continues to suffer from back and neck problems, and he can’t raise his right arm above his head. “Physically, I am not well … I am supposed to walk with a cane but can’t,” he said.
When asked under cross-examination by Wothman, he had “no idea” why the assault/riot incident occurred that particular day in the south yard. “I’ve seen officers assaulted before, but nothing like this.”
The last corrections staff member, a sergeant, said he was radioed about a fight between two inmates while he was in a cell block. He had staged himself in case he was needed to assist when he received a second call about an inmate who was refusing to cuff up.
While responding to that area of the yard, he received a third call for an inmate assault on corrections staff. He began running toward the scene, where he could see two corrections staff members lying in blood and a lieutenant being assaulted.
During the inmates’ assault on staff, he tried to get to the lieutenant but was unable to, as Wothman grabbed and punched him. When he tried to gain control of Wothman, he was punched by another inmate.
At that point, he fell to the ground and was assaulted by the inmates. The sergeant said he was helped to the medical department and later treated in Altoona for a serious concussion. His injuries continue to affect his speech and memory, he told jurors.
All of the corrections staff members testified that they didn’t use any type of deadly force or weapon when trying to get Adams to cuff up. They also said they do not carry any weapons and only have a radio and handcuffs on their duty belt.
The captain testified that he was called back to SCI Houtzdale, where corrections staff had “lost control” of the yard. All staff members were pulled from the yard, which left 257 unruly inmates outside.
According to him, inmates had been throwing rocks at the corrections staff, and they were pulled out for their safety. He said that he was responsible for reviewing the surveillance of the incident and identifying inmates.
He also said he called in special response teams from Harrisburg and numerous members of Pennsylvania State Police to assist with coming to a peaceful resolution. The yard incident, he said, started at 2:37 p.m. and the last inmate was escorted from outside at 10:45 p.m.
Trooper David Patrick, a criminal investigator with the Clearfield-based state police, was the final witness for the commonwealth. On April 28, 2015 he was called for an assault at SCI Houtzdale and assisted with a perimeter after staff “lost the yard.”
He also went inside the prison and attempted to interview two suspects who refused to speak with him. He, with assistance of other troopers, conducted interviews with witnesses and gathered information and reports, which resulted in him filing the criminal complaint in the case.
The commonwealth has rested its case, and the trial will resume at 9 a.m. Tuesday before Grine in Clearfield County Court. At the close of court Monday, Grine instructed jurors to prepare to wrap up the case Tuesday and to go into their deliberations.