Corrections officer found not guilty of strangling former inmate

Emotions ran high after a circuit court judge declared a not-guilty verdict in a case involving a Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail corrections officer and a former inmate.

VPRJ corrections officer Vincent Russell, 43, was found not guilty on Tuesday of strangling former inmate John E. Wright in the showers of the jail on June 18, 2014.

Russell was charged with strangling and assaulting Wright on Dec. 16, 2014, nearly six months after the former inmate's wounds were treated by jail nurse Ann Tanner.

Tanner testified that Wright suffered a cut to his head, knots on his forehead and elbow and red streaks on his neck. Tanner also helped Russell clean his face and eyes after he was maced.

Russell testified that the incident happened after Wright spent the better part of 13 hours threatening the corrections officer and calling him a name that degraded his manhood and race. Russell said he got physical because he thought Wright would attack him.

Russell has remained employed at VPRJ since the incident.

Williamsburg-James City Circuit Court Judge R. Bruce Long said he felt there was sufficient evidence to prove that Russell did assault Wright, but decided to withhold his finding for one year.

If Russell behaves well and pays his court fees the assault and battery charge will be dismissed, Long said.

"There's no such thing as a totally impossible job, but if you're looking for one that's probably it – a corrections officer," Long said in court Tuesday. "But that's the job."

"Words alone are never sufficient provocation for assault and battery," Long added.

Long said he was troubled by conflicting statements written by Russell to his superiors following the incident.

Russell's original statement, which was written two hours after the incident, describes an accidental fall as a result of his feet tangling with Wright's, said Williamsburg-Commonwealth's Attorney Cathy Black.

Video footage captured by a jail security camera showed a different story.

The footage shows Russell and Wright walking down a hallway and exchanging words. Wright turned his head toward Russell, then the corrections officer used his forearm to push Wright into the door frame of a bathroom and onto the floor. The rest of the footage shows Russell's feet sticking outside the bathroom door as there appears to be a struggle on the ground.

VPRJ Captain Desaline Perry testified that Russell's original statement was not consistent with security footage, She asked him to watch the footage and write a new statement.

"Some of the components of his report were the incidents that took place, but there were blanks," Perry testified. "It wasn't consistent with what was on the video tape."

Three other corrections officers responded to the scene. Perry did not ask them to rewrite their statements, she testified.

Russell wrote a second, more detailed statement, although he did not mention that he felt in danger or was defending himself, Black said.

Self defense was the argument Russell's defense his attorney, Fernando Groene, argued in court on Tuesday.

"My intent was to protect myself," Russell testified.

Long also questioned Wright's credibility as a witness. Long said he did not feel Wright was a completely credible witness because he is a four-time convicted felon with multiple assault and battery convictions.

"Our system is utterly void," Wright said after the Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court judge announced his finding.

Wright did not wish to make further comment, but could be heard complaining loudly that if Russell behaves well the legal record will be wiped clean, and it will be as if nothing ever happened.

"It did happen. I lived it," Wright said outside the courtroom.

Mayfield can be reached at 757-298-5828.

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