No one disputes that a riot in Lemon Creek Correctional Center’s E Dorm in October 2015 caused a lot of damage.
But exactly who was responsible, and to what extent, formed the crux of closing arguments in former inmate Justin Thomerson’s trial on charges of felony rioting and criminal mischief.
Thomerson is one of eight men initially charged in the Oct. 5, 2015 incident. Four co-defendants accepted plea agreements and three still are set to stand trial together later this year; Thomerson opted to not allow his trial to be postponed, which meant that he was tried solo.
Earlier in the day Monday in Juneau Superior Court, as the trial entered its second week, Thomerson took the stand in his own defense.
He told the jury that, as they had already heard from other witnesses, there was a lot of tension in the prison over a new phone system used by inmates that caused a jump in billing rates.
“The effect was devastating,” he said.
In particular, he said, one dormmate’s father was dying, and he hadn’t been able to talk to him in days. That inmate had seemingly precipitated a chain of events that night when he left the dorm against orders and had a confrontation with a correctional officer.
Thomerson testified that during a conversation in the dorm that eventually included almost every inmate there, he advocated against violence. While there is video inside and outside the dorm, there was no sound.
Thomerson said he told them,”If you go the violence route, they’re going to pepper spray us, they’re going to throw us in the hole, and we’ll still have to pay for calls.”
Instead, Thomerson said, he urged the inmates to join a class action suit regarding the phone system, a notice for which was hanging on the wall.
The inmate testified that the continued lack of contact from the correctional officers became a source of increased concern, including a decision to not conduct a customary count of the inmates in each dorm.
“When they start acting out of the ordinary, everyone gets tense,” he explained. “The longer nothing happens, the more everybody starts to assume the worst.”
Thomerson acknowledged that in an earlier phone call to a female friend he had been extremely upset about the phone situation, saying, “I definitely vented.” But by his last call, before the prison shut down the phone system, Thomerson said he had calmed down even though the situation was tense and the other inmates were worked up.
“I told her I was going to chillax and lay on my bunk,” he said. “I had made the decision not to go backwards — it wasn’t worth it to me.”
According to Thomerson, the actions he did take were in an effort to prevent harm to himself and to others.
He said he filled a bottle with water and soaked towels with water to guard against pepper spray. He acknowledged using a metal divider to ram the plexiglass window after guards covered it with sheets — but he said he did so in a vain attempt to dislodge the sheets.
He denied being one of the inmates who eventually broke the window, and added that he did not help push a table against the door.
Assistant District Attorney Amy Paige, however, said she didn’t believe Thomerson’s interpretation of events — and said the jury shouldn’t either.
“I think the conclusion you will draw is, we see two different Justin Thomersons,” Paige said — the one who made violent threats against prison staff on the phone to his female friend, and the “peacekeeper” presented by the defense during trial.
Paige argued that it doesn’t matter if Thomerson claims he is innocent of intent to riot, because his reckless conduct — defined as behavior that is a gross deviation from what would be considered reasonable — makes him guilty.
“He was telling people something was going to happen,” Paige said, adding that he told his friends that he was fed up and complained that no one wanted to do anything.
“Go hard or go home, they won’t let me go home so I guess going hard is the only option,” Paige said, quoting Thomerson’s phone call.
But Thomerson’s attorney, Gregory Parvin, insisted to the jury that although Thomerson was present during the riot, he was not a participant.
The prosecution’s witness, Parvin said, described actions seen on video with no context because there was no sound to explain what was going on.
“You were asked to speculate, to fill in the blanks,” he told the jury.
But, he said, the state ignored the one unbiased witness, a former inmate named Willie Neal, who testified that Thomerson had tried to defuse the situation in the hours before the riot.
“There was a riot,” Parvin said. “The evidence shows (Thomerson) was trying to shut it down … because the consequences would be so dramatic. The testimony has given you the context for the video. “
In her rebuttal, Paige sought to downplay the importance of Neal’s testimony, saying that he did not have a good vantage point to see everything that was going on and that his narrative was inaccurate.
The case went to jury late Monday and deliberations will resume this morning.
• Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 523-2246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.