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Negligence suit over prison bus slaying heads to trial

A judge ruled Wednesday that there is enough evidence for a trial on whether the state was negligent when an inmate killed another inmate aboard a prison bus in 2005.

The parents of Phillip E. Parker Jr. claim in a lawsuit that his death was caused by correctional officers’ ineptitude, deliberate indifference and negligence.

“It can be reasonably inferred in this case that the officers were, at a minimum, negligent,” said Judge Sylvester B. Cox ruled in Baltimore City Circuit Court. The trial is set for Oct. 11.

The state wanted the case thrown out, saying the officers couldn’t be held responsible for Parker’s death.

Kevin Johns was convicted of killing Parker Feb. 2, 2005, by strangling him and slashing his neck with a razor blade as the bus carrying 36 inmates and five officers rolled through Interstate 70 before dawn from a prison near Hagerstown to one in Baltimore.

Johns, with two previous murder convictions, was found guilty of Parker’s murder but not criminally responsible due to mental illness. He killed himself in prison in 2009.

Parker’s parents, Melissa Rodriguez and Philip E. Parker Sr., along with Parker’s estate, filed the wrongful death claim in 2008. They allege the officers — two of whom were seated 5 to 7 feet behind Parker — failed to follow security procedures, failed to notice something was amiss and failed to promptly try to resuscitate him. The plaintiffs claim to have video evidence that Parker lay dying for 10 minutes with no one attempting CPR after the bus reached its destination.

The plaintiffs claim the officers were eating, listening to music or watching videotapes in the dark bus. Two were fired, one was allowed to retire and two were disciplined.

Attorney Samuel M. Shapiro said he could produce evidence of deficiencies in the officers’ training.

“Each of our three experts opined that the policies and procedures in effect were either constitutionally deficient or were not taught — and if they were taught, they were not practiced,” he said.

Assistant Attorney General Stephanie Lane-Weber asked the judge to dismiss, arguing the officers had no specific knowledge that Parker was in danger and therefore couldn’t be held responsible for his death.

“There are absolutely no facts alleged that any off the defendants actually knew that Mr. Johns was going to assault Mr. Parker,” she said.

The plaintiffs are seeking compensation of $21 million plus punitive damages.

Melissa Rodriguez said the case isn’t about the money.

“I just think people need to know what happened to my son so they understand,” she said. “No one ever, ever took responsibility for what happened to my son.”

Parker, of Baltimore, was serving a 3 1/2-year sentence for attempting to rob two youths with a broken pellet gun.