Jury awards $18.5M in prison bus slaying suit

A Baltimore City Circuit Court jury found the state and four of five corrections officials were negligent in the death of Philip E. Parker Jr., who was killed by fellow inmate Kevin Johns during a 2005 prison bus ride from Hagerstown to the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore.

After about 3½ hours of deliberations, the jury returned an $18.5 million verdict against the defendants on Monday — $10 million for Parker’s estate, $7.5 million for his mother, Melissa Rodriguez, and $1 million for his father, Philip E. Parker Sr.

“It’s been 6½ years since my son was snatched away from me,” Rodriguez said outside the courthouse. “I’ve waited a long time for this day. Now I’m just numb.”

Rex S. Gordon, representing the guards from the state attorney general’s office, suggested the possibility of an appeal.

“We’ll be filing post-trial motions in the usual course of business,” Gordon said.

Gordon had no further comment.

During the trial, Gordon raised the issue of state employee immunity. Under the Maryland Tort Claims Act, damages against the state are capped at $200,000, and state personnel are protected from work-related lawsuits unless the plaintiff can prove malice or gross negligence. Of the four guards found negligent in Parker’s case, the jury found only one, officer-in-charge Larry Cooper, to be grossly negligent.

“We’re still sorting that out,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Michael A. Mastracci, a solo practitioner, when asked about immunity.

Mastracci’s partner in the case, solo practitioner Samuel M. Shapiro, said he hoped the verdict would “send a message” to the state’s corrections department.

“People who are in their care are people, and they’re entitled to human rights,” he said.

Johns, who confessed to killing Parker, committed suicide in prison in 2009. Rodriguez filed suit in 2006 against corrections officials Cooper, Robert Scott, Kenyatta Surgeon, Charles Gaither and Earl Generette, alleging they were negligent for failing to stop the attack or tend to Parker’s injuries in time to save his life. The jury found that only Generette, seated in the front of the bus, was not negligent.

Earlier on Monday, Rodriguez sat with her hand on her forehead, wiping her eyes with a tissue as Shapiro recounted in his closing arguments the night her son was killed.

Parker had served more than half of his 3½- year sentence for attempted robbery when he was called to testify at a sentencing hearing for Johns in Hagerstown. After the hearing, he rode back to Baltimore in the middle of the night on a bus with Johns and 35 other inmates.

When the bus was about 15 minutes from its destination, Johns stood up, hooked his elbow around Parker’s neck and then sat back down, strangling Parker against the back of his seat.

Shapiro argued the guards were grossly negligent because Johns was not properly shackled or searched before the bus departed, and none of the guards stopped the attack once it was in progress. He noted that while they were supposed to maintain constant observation, the guards had brought food, cell phones and a DVD player along for the ride.

“To sit there and eat your dinner while seven feet away Philip Parker is having his throat strangled and his neck slashed is gross negligence,” Shapiro said.

Finally, Shapiro showed surveillance video from MCAC, which he said showed that the guards did not perform proper CPR on Parker, even after they discovered he still had a pulse.

Gordon told the jury in closing that his clients could not have foreseen the attack, and there was little more they could have done to save Parker after it happened.

The darkness of the bus, the grill that separated the guards and inmates and the swiftness of Johns’ attack made it impossible for the guards to recognize what he was doing and stop it, Gordon added. Once the bus arrived, he said, the guards found Parker unresponsive and acted properly, calling for help, removing his shackles and checking his pulse.

Gordon also questioned the closeness of the relationship between Parker and his parents, noting that he was estranged from his father for years and was in and out of his mother’s house, often living with relatives.

After the verdict, Rodriguez said her motivation for the suit was the way her son was treated on the night he died.

“Finally somebody gave my son some type of justice,” she said. “They realized his pain and suffering and that’s all I ever wanted. They recognized that he was not unsalvageable.”

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