Las Vegas trial opens for officers accused of mistreating prisoner

Updated December 12, 2018 - 8:04 pm

A pair of former Nevada Department of Corrections officers faced a jury Wednesday on felony charges involving an encounter with an uncooperative inmate.

Deputy Attorney General Daniel Westmeyer told jurors the trial centered around an ancient discussion: “Who watches the watchmen? Who polices the police?”

Paul Valdez and Jose Navarrete each face a felony charge of oppression under color of office and two gross misdemeanors — inhumanity to a prisoner and false report by a public officer — in connection with a confrontation in October 2016 at Southern Desert Correctional Center.

Their lawyers said they followed prison protocol.

“What officer Valdez did under those circumstances was proper,” said defense attorney Ross Goodman. “It was reasonable, and he used the least amount of force necessary to get control of the inmate.”

Navarrete’s attorney, Kyle Cottner, said the officer tried to “stop a dangerous situation involving a violent inmate from spinning out of control.”

Outside the prison mess hall after breakfast, the officers encountered Ricky Norelus, who was serving a two- to six-year sentence for battery with a deadly weapon, for which he was found guilty but mentally ill in 2013.

Norelus, with a history of write-ups at the prison, was pulled out of line and placed against a wall alongside other inmates.

A surveillance video clip that Westmeyer labeled “the incident” lasted a few seconds. It showed Valdez wrapping his arm around Norelus and slamming him to the ground before Navarrete joined in to help restrain the inmate.

Prosecutors argued that the officers later fabricated a report to indicate that Norelus had pulled his hands off the wall and “turned in an aggressive manner” toward Valdez.

But Goodman and Cottner argued that a longer surveillance video, stretching 10 minutes before Norelus was thrown to the ground, showed the inmate disobeying orders, shouting obscenities, pulling his hands from a prison wall and directing his elbow toward Valdez as the officers tried to calm him.

Navarrete had worked at the Indian Springs prison “with a blemish-free record” for eight years before the encounter with Norelus, according to Cottner.

Valdez, who served in the Marines and the Air Force, had followed training protocol he learned as a serviceman and officer, Goodman said.

The former officers face up to four years in prison for the felony charge and up to one year of imprisonment for each gross misdemeanor charge.

Norelus, since released from prison, did not suffer any injuries from the encounter. He later laughed and taunted the officers, according to the defense attorneys.

“He’s laughing hysterically,” Cottner said. “He’s enjoying the fact that he’s going to try and get these guys in trouble. He’s talking about, ‘Congratulations — you just put my kid through college.’”

Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Find @randompoker on Twitter.

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