There was little dispute about what happened to Justin Sharples on the second day of his prison stint at the MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole.
A guard came up behind him on the evening of Sept. 16, 2014, and ordered him to turn around. Sharples obliged, and the guard began punching him in the face. Another guard joined in. Other guards watched. When Sharples picked himself up out of the pool of his blood on the floor, his skull was fractured, his eye socket shattered, and his eye drooped out of place.
The state prison didn’t contest that its employees had launched the attack. In fact, internal affairs investigators found misconduct all around — not just by Robert Grocki and Michael Savastano, the two guards who beat Sharples and faced criminal charges, but by four others who allegedly helped cover it up, according to prison internal affairs reports.
But when Sharples, who was left disabled by the beating, filed a lawsuit against the state in 2017 looking for restitution, the state spent five years fighting it tooth and nail. The state’s stance was simple: No, the state was not responsible for its employees’ actions.
It was only this week, before the case was slated to go to trial, and amid Globe inquiries, that the state settled the suit and agreed to pay Sharples $750,000. The state did not acknowledge any wrongdoing in the settlement.
“There’s no accountability for bad behavior. And there’s no acceptance of responsibility,” said Sharples’s attorney, Robert Griffin, on Thursday, of the long road his client had to travel to a settlement. “He suffered the injuries back in 2014. And he has to wait to be compensated till 2022?”
A spokesman for the Department of Correction, Jason Dobson, declined to answer questions about why the case took so long to settle, or why the state believed it shouldn’t be responsible for its employees’ conduct.
“The Department of Correction took quick action in response to the disturbing actions of Michael Savastano and Robert Grocki in assaulting a person entrusted to their care in a correctional facility,” Dobson said in a statement. “The subsequent investigation resulted in the swift termination of both officers and referral to the Norfolk County District Attorney for criminal prosecution.”
The DOC believes the settlement reached was fair, Dobson said.
Attorney General Maura Healey’s office had represented the state in this matter until February, when a conflict caused the office to drop the case. Spokeswoman Jillian Fennimore declined to answer specific questions about the case or the state’s stance, but said the pandemic slowed the legal process, and cases like this one take time.
Sharples is now 41 years old and out of prison. But he has never recovered. He’s always in pain. He sees double. He can’t work. And in August, the plate that doctors put in his face to repair his orbital bone shifted and began poking through his cheek — a half-inch jut of metal and plastic sitting like a shelf under his eye.
“The Department of Correction ... they hold us accountable for what we do in life. So they should be held accountable,” Sharples said in a recent interview.
While the state was fighting the case, the prison promoted two of the guards who its own internal affairs department found had helped cover up the beating: Bethany Morais, who internal affairs investigators said witnessed the attack and lied about it, and Connor Harrington, who investigators said knew of the attack and its coverup but kept quiet. A DOC spokesperson declined to comment on the promotions. An attorney for Harrington said his client was not in the room for the assault and did not participate in a coverup.
Morais’s attorney, Ken Anderson, said his client had never before seen such an assault on an inmate, and it took her completely by surprise. At the time, he said, Morais was a physically slight woman in her mid-20s, watching 250-pound, muscular men turning suddenly violent. “She simply physically could not stop the assault,” Anderson said. Morais did radio for help, according to court documents.
Anderson said that Morais was intimidated by other guards into lying about the assault, but the lies took a “deep emotional toll,” and she ultimately came forward to tell the truth. That account is reflected in internal affairs documents. It was Morais’s truthful testimony, Anderson said, that ultimately led to the criminal indictments of Grocki and Savastano.
Advocates say that for an inmate, restitution for acts of brutality can be hard to come by. Inmates often struggle to get allegations of abuse against guards taken seriously in court. It is rare for excessive use of force allegations against a guard to result in criminal charges. And for inmates who want to sue civilly, there is little legal support. Cases often languish and die without ever making it to court.
“This is an incident where the state should be doing everything they can do to make things as right as they can be made with Mr. Sharples, who was maimed by people who are paid to enforce public safety on behalf of the state,” said Jesse White, policy director at Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, a nonprofit that provides legal aid to people who are incarcerated. “For every incident like this, where the evidence is so overwhelming it can’t be ignored, there are 10 incidents where it is successfully covered up.”
Prisoners’ Legal Services receives between 150 and 200 reports of assaults of prisoners by guards every year, from state and county prisons and jails and houses of correction, said White, who worked for seven years as the brutality staff attorney at the organization and briefly handled Sharples’s initial claim.
And though the argument from the state that it should not be held responsible for its employees’ actions sounds counterintuitive, legal experts say it is common in Massachusetts tort law, which governs personal injury cases.
The legal standard that the courts use is this, said Northeastern University Law professor Daniel Medwed: An employer is typically only responsible for the conduct of an employee when that conduct falls “within the scope of employment.” So if an employee causes harm while performing the work they are paid to do, the employer could be held liable. If, however, an employee deliberately begins breaking the law while they happen to be at work, that conduct is “outside the scope of employment,” and it is no longer the responsibility of the employer. The employee in that scenario has essentially gone rogue, Medwed said, and unless the employer had reason to believe this was a risk, the courts are reluctant to find them responsible for it.
“A case like this screams out for compensation in the broader sense, that this person was harmed by a state employee and that’s not disputed,” Medwed said of Sharples’s case. “The problem is that the law isn’t always aligned with what a lot of us think is morally or ethically right.”
For Sharples, no amount of compensation will ever repair the damage he’s suffered. The assault replays in his head every time he looks in the mirror.
Of the night that it occurred, Sharples said he was trying to get out of the unit where he had been placed because it housed sex offenders. Sharples was there for a probation violation on an assault and battery with a dangerous weapon charge he picked up in a bar fight. A guard told him he should refuse to be locked into his cell for the night, because that would prompt officials to relocate him to a different unit, he said.
But when guards arrived, Grocki told him to turn, and Sharples was blindsided by a hard, fast punch. A second guard, Savastano, struck him, and Sharples fell to the ground. The guards kicked him, he said, and yelled, “Welcome to [expletive] Walpole!” Sharples said he put his hand to his face and felt something wet and spongy. It was his eye.
Morais and another guard saw the beating unfold, according to prison documents, but no one intervened.
“I didn’t know whether I was going to live or die,” Sharples recalled.
Sharples said in his suit that Grocki and Savastano had reputations for violence in Walpole. Both were accused in a separate lawsuit of beating another Walpole inmate a year before Sharples. Grocki had previously been transferred out of a different prison for misconduct, according to court records.
Following the assault, Sharples says he received inadequate medical care, which ultimately resulted in three separate surgeries.
Grocki and Savastano were charged in 2016 in Norfolk Superior Court with assault and battery. Grocki pleaded guilty and served two years of probation. He has since died. Savastano admitted that prosecutors had enough facts to find him guilty and served two years of probation, after which the charges against him were dismissed. Savastano could not be reached for comment, and his criminal attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Today, on top of the physical pain and disability, Sharples also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and worries that people are following or watching him. Loud noises make his heart pound. When he sleeps, he dreams that he is back in the ambulance after the beating, but this time, dead. He wakes up screaming.
“I don’t understand where they can take this and just sweep it under the rug like it’s nothing,” Sharples said. “I have to deal with it every day of my life.”