PITTSBURGH – Jury selection began Tuesday in the trial of a fired guard at the center of a sexual and physical abuse investigation at a Pittsburgh state prison and his attorney said the man is “pleased we’re finally getting a chance to face his accusers.”
Harry Nicoletti, 61, of Coraopolis, faces the most – and most serious – charges of the four guards who are standing trial separately for the alleged abuse in the F Block, or intake area, at the century-old State Correctional Institution in Pittsburgh.
Nicoletti has been fired from the prison where he allegedly sexually assaulted and physically abused more than 20 inmates, mostly those serving time for child molestation. But Nicoletti also allegedly targeted inmates he thought were gay, regardless of their crimes.
Nicoletti has called the charges “made up” and his attorney, Steve Colafella, said the accusers are not those typically deemed credible.
“Obviously, we’re dealing with not only a number of convicted felons, we’re dealing with a number of convicted child sex offenders,” Colafella said during a break in Tuesday’s jury selection. Opening statements are expected to begin Thursday.
The jury must decide whether Nicoletti is guilty of 89 counts involving 21 inmates who have accused him of physical or sexual abuse – including institutional sexual assault and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.
Perhaps the most heinous allegations involve a transsexual male inmate who developed female breasts due to hormone treatments. Nicoletti fondled that inmate before raping him, while shouting racial and sexual epithets, including calling him a “weird freaky monkey,” the criminal complaint said.
Nicoletti is also charged with intimidating other inmates into silence, ordering or coercing other guards to mistreat prisoners – including contaminating their food and bedding with urine and other bodily fluids – and then working with his colleagues to cover up the alleged abuse.
The investigation has spawned several lawsuits, including two filed by eight guards, including Nicoletti, who lost their jobs or were demoted for allegedly participating in the abuse or failing to report it. The guards contend the allegations were trumped up and coaxed out of inmates by investigators with the state Department of Corrections.
Seven former inmates, including some who will testify against Nicoletti and the other guards in criminal court, are suing over their alleged mistreatment. And three former prison administrators who lost their jobs during the investigation have sued claiming they were fired for being whistleblowers about the abuse. A judge has tossed that lawsuit, but they’re appealing to have it reinstated.
The judge overseeing Nicoletti’s case also presided over another guard’s trial last month. Tory Kelly, 41, of Aliquippa, was convicted on four counts including felony witness intimidation against one inmate, but had 10 other charges based on allegations by three other inmates thrown out. His sentencing is scheduled for March 20.
Two other guards are scheduled for trial later this year.
Nicoletti was arrested in September 2011, five months after he and several guards were suspended without explanation during what would later be revealed to be a county grand jury probe.
“We’re anxious to start this trial; it’s been almost two years now,” Colafella said. “He’s certainly anxious to move forward and have his day in court.”