Trial Under Way for Inmate Accused in Houtzdale Riot

CLEARFIELD – On Monday in Clearfield County Court, the trial got under way for an inmate accused of assaulting corrections officers during an April of 2015 riot at the State Correctional Institution at Houtzdale.

Isaiah Samir Lakeem Hall, 26, an inmate of state prison, is standing trial on charges of criminal conspiracy/aggravated assault and aggravated assault, six counts each; criminal conspiracy/assault by prisoner, assault by prisoner, conspiracy/simple assault and simple assault, three counts each; conspiracy/riot; and riot.

District Attorney William A. Shaw Jr. is presenting the case on behalf of the commonwealth. Hall is being represented by defense attorney Ryan P. Sayers. Senior Judge David E. Grine is specially presiding over the trial, which was scheduled to last four days but may wrap up either Tuesday or Wednesday.

In his opening statement, Shaw gave jurors a thumbnail sketch of the case. He said corrections officers responded to break up a fight between two inmates in the south yard at SCI Houtzdale. One disregarded all commands from the officers who were trying to restrain him.

After the inmate took a fighting stance, he was taken to the ground by three officers. While the inmate continued to resist, numerous others began beating, kicking and stomping on the officers. Hall was among the rioting inmates, he said, and was identified by prison staff due to his attire, which included Timberland boots.

Sayers began his opening, saying the commonwealth had the burden to prove the case against Hall beyond a reasonable doubt. “You’re here to determine if the commonwealth even has the right person,” he said.

Sayers said the commonwealth would present testimony and evidence, including video of the riot, and justice did need to be served in the case. However, he argued that the commonwealth had the wrong person and believed the jury would make the same determination at the end of trial.

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. The officer 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.

When a second officer and sergeant showed up on the scene, he said Adams took a “fighting stance.” 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, the officers were alerted by radio that the inmates were coming and swarming them. The officer said he only had one of Adams’ wrists cuffed, and he was trying to get the other behind him to cuff up Adams, so he could be in position to defend himself against the inmates.

“I never did because I got assaulted,” he testified. “I believe I was being kicked in the head. I don’t remember anything after that.” 

Shaw asked the officer if he had a weapon on him, such as a firearm, baton, etc., and he said he did not and officers only carry cuffs and a radio on their duty belts.

The officer said he was taken from the yard in a wheelchair and evaluated first at the prison’s medical department. He was then transported by ambulance to the Altoona Hospital for treatment for bruising to his face, a concussion and rib and shoulder injuries.

A sergeant testified that he was working in the south yard when he was radioed about an inmate fight. He looked out into the yard and observed two officers cuffing an inmate. When he approached, he found the other inmate, Adams, was resisting officers and headed in their direction.

He corroborated the testimony of the first witness, saying Adams was being aggressive and continually resisting to be put in cuffs. He said he tried to pull one arm back, but when he did, it was “the last thing I remember, because I got knocked unconscious.”

When he woke up, he was lying on his back and the prison’s staff members were hovered over him. The next thing he remembered was being in the medical department before being taken by life-flight to the Altoona Hospital with severe head injuries, including a laceration, bruising and a concussion.

A second sergeant testified that he ran into the south yard when he was radioed about a fight. He proceeded in case help was needed and was radioed again that staff members were on the ground being assaulted by inmates.

He said when he got to the scene, a lieutenant was being assaulted and he tried to get to him. However, inmate Norman Wothman grabbed him and punched him.  When he took a defensive position, he was punched and taken to the ground. He was then kicked and punched while he was on the ground.

The sergeant said he suffered a severe concussion and still feels the effects of it on his speech, memory, etc.  He continues to undergo regular therapy and treatment.

He also said that he can’t continue to work as an officer at the prison or in law enforcement because if he suffered another traumatic head injury, it could result in a coma or debilitate him further.

An officer testified that he was assigned to review the video recordings of the riot. He identified inmates who took part in it, and said that Hall was one of them. He was able to identify Hall because of his attire, which included Timberland boots, light complexion and facial features.

He also said he’d become acquainted with Hall and was familiar with his mannerisms, since he’d worked with him for about a year at that point. He confidently testified – without a doubt – that Hall kicked and stomped the officer and kicked both sergeants several times.

Due to the yard incident, he said the prison went on lockdown for several hours. Specialized response and negotiation teams were called in, and the Pennsylvania State Police were mobilized at the prison.

Another officer who was in the security office was alerted to multiple fights in the south yard. When he arrived at the scene, officers were on the ground. He organized a perimeter to keep inmates away from them.

He said the officers were removed from the yard, and the prison went on lockdown. He said inmates were escorted back inside when the yard incident diffused at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m.

He said some inmates were taken to their regular housing units. Others were secured in the restricted housing unit, if they were believed to be involved or to have evidence.

The officer said he was ordered to collect boots from Hall, because they had blood on them. He subsequently turned them over to the state police at Clearfield.

(Retired) Trooper Mary Jane McGinnis said on April 29, 2015, she went to the Altoona Hospital to interview one sergeant about the incident as well as to collect a DNA sample from him. She said the DNA sample was taken back to the Clearfield barracks and entered into the evidence room.

Trooper Justin Yost, who is formerly of the Clearfield barracks and now stationed in Huntingdon, said he collected Hall’s boots the night of the yard incident. He transported them back to the Clearfield barracks and entered them in as evidence.

On June 25, 2015, he took Hall’s boots and the sergeant’s DNA sample to the Erie Regional Crime Lab for analysis.

A registered nurse at SCI Houtzdale also testified about her response to the south yard after multiple officers were injured in the assault.

The commonwealth will continue presenting its case at 9 a.m. Tuesday in Courtroom No. 1 at the Clearfield County Courthouse.

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