Ex-Pa. prison guard convicted of 27 abuse counts
PITTSBURGH – A fired Pittsburgh state prison guard accused of physically and sexually assaulting inmates who were gay or serving time for child-sex crimes has been convicted on 27 counts of mistreating them and exposing himself, but was acquitted of dozens of other charges – including all of the sexual assault allegations he faced.
Harry Nicoletti, 61, of Coraopolis, was allowed to remain free until he’s sentenced March 27, when Allegheny County Deputy District Attorney Jon Pittman told the judge he’ll argue that Nicoletti’s crimes, including 12 counts of official oppression and 8 of simple assault and three of indecent exposure, nonetheless warrant a prison sentence.
Nicoletti’s defense had argued the allegations were false or, at best, exaggerations fueled by the inmate rumor mill at the century-old prison formerly known as Western Pen, and the larger Department of Corrections system of prisons.
Nicoletti’s attorney, Stephen Colafella, said the verdict showed the jury believed “there was some singling out of certain offenders and there was some mistreatment of those offenders.” Colafella couldn’t predict what kind of sentence Nicoletti might face, though Pittman told Common Pleas Judge David Cashman he’ll seek at least 18 months on one of three counts that Nicoletti solicited an inmate to harass another.
Nicoletti didn’t comment but appeared to be relieved as he shook hands with supporters, though his wife cried and appeared shaken.
“I don’t consider any of it a victory,” Colafella said. “It’s been horrible for him. It’s been humiliating for him.”
Pittman opened the trial Jan. 9 by telling jurors Nicoletti abused his power to feed his “demented desires” but didn’t comment directly on the jury’s rejection of the more egregious sexual allegations.
“This was not an easy case to sit on as a juror,” Pittman said, but said the verdict shows “the laws of the Commonwealth apply everywhere.”
Nicoletti’s jury heard from 58 witnesses, including 21 of 22 alleged inmate victims, before beginning their deliberations Jan. 25. One inmate refused to testify, though the jury still found Nicoletti guilty of abusing that man and 13 others who took the stand, while rejecting all charges involving the other 8 inmates.
Colafella had argued the allegations spun wildly out of control after internal investigators began investigating claims by one pedophile inmate.
That inmate told a counselor at another prison where he was eventually assigned that Nicoletti had exposed himself and threatened to break his hand if he didn’t perform a sex act on Nicoletti.
The jury convicted Nicoletti of indecent exposure, terroristic threats and official oppression in relation to that inmate.
The convict’s story was referred to internal state corrections investigators and led to other alleged inmate victims, including a transsexual who contends Nicoletti sodomized him on three occasions. The jury rejected six counts relating to the alleged sodomy but did convict Nicoletti of official oppression.
The transsexual inmate and several others have filed related federal civil rights lawsuits.
Attorney Robert Peirce represents the transsexual inmate and said the jury’s decision “clearly demonstrates there are merits to the inmates’ complaints and allegations.”
In all, seven guards have been charged, though none as seriously or centrally as Nicoletti, who went to trial on 80 counts, including several each of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and institutional sexual assault. Those two crimes were the most serious Nicoletti faced and could have resulted in decades in prison.
Three guards accused of helping Nicoletti abuse inmates had their charges dismissed or dropped before they could stand trial. Another guard already has been convicted of threatening an inmate, though he was acquitted of charges involving three other alleged victims, and two other former guards await trial after Nicoletti.
The investigation also resulted in the firing of the prison superintendent and other top supervisors, who have sued claiming they were made scapegoats. Several guards who were fired, demoted or charged criminally before they were cleared, also have sued the Department of Corrections, alleging internal investigators encouraged inmates to make unwarranted allegations.
“Hopefully, this decision will provide some closure for the victims in this case,” corrections spokeswoman Susan Bensinger said. “We want to again stress that this individual’s actions are not representative of the great work that the staff at the State Correctional Institution-Pittsburgh do on a daily basis.”