PLYMOUTH — A Plymouth Superior Court judge heard opening arguments and viewed video evidence Tuesday in the extraordinary trial of three prison guards facing manslaughter charges in the death of a 23-year-old patient with schizophrenia at Bridgewater State Hospital.
Martin F. Murphy, the special prosecutor in the case, said Joshua K. Messier was killed on the evening of May 4, 2009, as guards were strapping him down to a small bed by his wrists and ankles because they violated four key rules designed to govern the behavior of guards when handling patients who become violent.
Messier had been in a fight with two other guards just minutes earlier.
“The video evidence will show that these correction officers violated each of these rules,” Murphy said.
But defense attorney Edward P. Harrington said the guards were following generally accepted procedures at Bridgewater, asserting that the guards were charged five years after Messier’s death only because of new publicity surrounding the case “solely to appease the adverse news accounts.”
Defense attorneys also said the guards were doing the best job they could under the circumstances, given that the Department of Correction had failed to provide them with adequate training in either the use of four-point restraints, or the handling of patients with a serious mental illness who can become violent.
“Officer Derek Howard was following his training, as poor at it was, he was following the leadership, as poor as it was,” said attorney Kenneth H. Anderson, referring to one of the three guards. “There was no malice.”
Murphy agreed that Department of Correction and former Bridgewater officials bear responsibility for Messier’s death, but said video evidence shows the three guards on trial “share direct responsibility.”
Outlining the case against the guards, Murphy said the essential rules they violated include: using four-point restraints only when there is an imminent danger of harm, and never for punishment; obtaining medical approval before putting a patient in restraints; never using more force than necessary; and never putting pressure down on a patient’s back while restrained, even if the patient is resisting.
Murphy said he would rely on crucial — but grainy — video evidence depicting the guards’ handling of Messier. The approximately 18 minutes of video, he said, tracks about a half-dozen guards and Messier, as Messier is subdued and transferred to B9ridgewater’s old Intensive Treatment Unit and the cell where he was strapped down and killed.
Murphy described the video as “the most important evidence in this case — perhaps the only evidence that matters.”
Noting that it begins at 9:08 p.m., moments after Messier was visited by his mother, Lisa Brown, Murphy said, “Eighteen minutes later he was dead, lying face up, naked, covered only by a blanket.”
Kevin Anahory, an attorney for the Department of Correction who investigated Messier’s death and faulted the guards, took the stand and delivered a frame-by-fame narrative of the events depicted, including frames where Howard and guard John C. Raposo can be seen pushing down on Messier’s back, apparently folding him over at the waist “for 54 full seconds,” while a third guard, George A. Billadeau, supervises the scene.
But defense attorneys objected to specific frames where, they said, the graininess of the video prevented them from discerning with precision what was happening. Judge Jeffrey A. Locke dismissed those objections but interrupted the presentation on several occasions and asked Anahory whether his descriptions were based “on speculation or observation.”
Locke is hearing arguments in the case without a jury because the guards waived their rights to a jury trial to speed the trail and return to their normal lives, Anderson said.
Attorneys for the guards also agreed to have several motions to dismiss the charges heard after the trial, if they are found guilty, also in the interest of avoiding further delays.
The lack of a jury and postponing motions to dismiss are among several other unusual aspects of the case. In 2010, medical examiner Mindy J. Hull ruled Messier’s death a homicide, but Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz said there was insufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges.
Messier’s family filed a civil lawsuit. But the case, along with prospects for criminal prosecution, languished until The Boston Globe investigated the circumstances surrounding Messier’s death and found that Bridgewater guards violated more than a half-dozen laws, regulations, and policies on the evening they wrestled Messier into four-point restraints.
The Globe, which published its findings in February 2014, also found that top officials at the Department of Correction covered up the circumstances surrounding Messier’s death.
Then-Governor Deval Patrick suspended the guards — they were subsequently fired — and disciplined several top Department of Correction officials. And Martha Coakley, the attorney general at the time, named Murphy to review the case for possible criminal violations.Michael Rezendes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mikerezendes.