State may face $1M wrongful death lawsuit

Posted Dec. 04, 2009, at 8:04 p.m.

WARREN, Maine — The widow of a man killed in April at the Maine State Prison has alerted the Attorney General’s Office that she intends to file a $1 million wrongful death lawsuit against the state.

The attorney for Janet Weinstein, of New Hartford, N.Y., filed a notice of claim in October regarding the slaying of her husband, Sheldon Weinstein.

A notice of claim is a precursor to a lawsuit.

“[He] was a 63-year-old, wheelchair-bound inmate at the Maine State Prison in Warren, Maine, when he was subjected to brutal beatings by other prisoners,” said the notice the BDN obtained this week. “This corporal punishment was delivered as part of a terrifying system of vigilante justice which is practiced openly at the prison.”

Weinstein died of blunt-force trauma on April 24, according to the state medical examiner’s office. But for several days before he died, medical personnel at the prison ignored his pleas for help, attorney Scott Gardner said in the notice of claim.

Gardner said last month that he believes there is a “very strong case” against the state.

“There’s nothing new that prisoners there for certain convictions are at the bottom of the pecking order,” Gardner said. “The problem is when prison officials condone vigilante justice against a prisoner.”

At the time of his death, Weinstein — a diabetic — was serving a two-year sentence for a conviction of one count of gross sexual assault against a child. Because of his medical needs, he had been moved from the Maine Correctional Facility in Windham to the Maine State Prison in Warren, where he was “perhaps the most fragile” inmate, according to the notice.

One prison guard was fired and another demoted after the Maine Department of Corrections conducted an internal investigation into the slaying.

The state Attorney General’s Office is conducting a criminal investigation, but declined to comment on the Weinstein matter.

“The policy of the Attorney General’s Office is not to comment on matters involving criminal investigations or possible litigation,” Kate Simmons, special assistant to the attorney general, said Friday.

According to the notice of claim, many governmental employees were involved in Weinstein’s death, including all Maine State Prison correction officers and their supervisors who oversaw the inmate’s daily activities at the prison, policymaking personnel including the Department of Corrections commissioner, the Maine State Prison warden, medical personnel at the prison and private medical contractors that provide services there.

The Department of Corrections commissioner is Martin Magnusson, and the state prison warden at the time of Sheldon Weinstein’s death was Jeffrey Merrill, who left the post in August.

“The Claimant [Janet Weinstein] alleges that policymakers within the Maine Department of Corrections were deliberately indifferent to a culture of inmate violence in which jailhouse justice was meted out to inmates like Mr. Weinstein,” reads the notice of claim. “Guards and supervisory personnel were deliberately indifferent to the risk of serious bodily injury Mr. Weinstein faced at the hands of inmates, and showed a wanton and willful disregard for Mr. Weinstein’s safety and basic human dignity.”

Gardner indicated last month that he needed to gather further details of the incident before filing the lawsuit.

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