PITTSBURGH – Closing arguments in the trial of a fired state prison guard charged with abusing inmates who were gay or were serving sentences for child molestation hinged on credibility and a disturbing question: Have the convicted child predators found another victim by making up heinous accusations to frame an honest guard or are they now the victims of a power-hungry predator?
“If we can’t trust our children around these monsters, we can’t believe them and that oath (to testify truthfully), which means nothing to them,” defense attorney Stephen Colafella said of the pedophile inmates.
The Allegheny County jurors who heard closing arguments Thursday after 11 days of often lurid testimony were to return Friday to hear the judge’s instructions before they deliberate the fate of Colafella’s client, Harry Nicoletti.
Nicoletti, accused of abusing inmates or having other guards or inmate workers abuse them at a century-old prison once known as Western Pen, is charged with 80 counts, including several each of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and institutional sexual assault. The 61-year-old would face decades in prison if convicted of only a fraction of the charges against him.
Nicoletti, who was suspended and left the prison in January 2011, eventually was fired and charged after a county grand jury recommended dozens of counts based on the claims of inmates who rotated through an intake and quarantine area where he worked.
Deputy District Attorney Jon Pittman said Nicoletti had the “perfect environment to abuse people.” He argued that the inmate witnesses, including many who said they were abused or saw abuse, agreed on too many key details to have made up their claims.
“Once you accept that they’re people, not animals, not a lower life form, this case is easy,” Pittman said. “Of course it happened.”
Nicoletti, of Coraopolis, is accused of exposing himself to inmates he targeted by publicly calling them out as pedophiles or gay and using threats to make them perform sex acts on him or each another.
The most heinous allegations involve a black transsexual inmate who had developed breasts because of hormone treatments. He contends he was fondled and sodomized by Nicoletti three times while being ridiculed for his race and sexual orientation.
Colafella, who used explicit, prison-style language during his defense of Nicoletti, contended that inmate flaunted his sexuality and made up the abuse claims in hopes of cashing in on a related federal lawsuit still pending in the courts.
Pittman, too, used coarse terms to describe the crimes Nicoletti is accused of committing and to sum up Nicoletti’s attitude toward inmates and power over them.
Seven guards were charged, none as seriously as Nicoletti, but all charges against three of them have been withdrawn or dismissed for lack of evidence. Nicoletti is the second of the four remaining guards to stand trial. The first was convicted last month of felony witness intimidation and other charges but was acquitted of 10 other counts.