Jury splits in prison riot case

Inmate found guilty of criminal mischief, but not guilty of more serious riot charge

Justin F. Thomerson and his defense attorney, Gregory Parvin, left, during the third day of Thomerson’s trial on riot charges in Juneau Superior Court Thursday morning, Aug. 4, 2017. (Liz Kellar | Juneau Empire)

The first of four co-defendants in a prison riot case was found guilty of third-degree criminal mischief by a jury Tuesday. But the jury did not convict Justin F. Thomerson of the more serious charge, felony rioting, in connection with the October 2015 incident that heavily damaged a dorm at Lemon Creek Correctional Center.

 

Three of Thomerson’s fellow inmates still are scheduled to stand trial on the same charges this fall.

Given that those cases are pending, Assistant District Attorney Amy Paige declined to comment on the verdict Tuesday afternoon.

Thomerson’s attorney, Gregory Parvin, said that he respected the jury’s decision, but added, “Obviously I’m disappointed with the result. … I believed strongly in my client.”

Thomerson appeared stoic after the verdict, shaking Parvin’s hand before he was taken back to LCCC. His sentencing was set for Nov. 10. He could face up to five years in prison.

Co-defendants Dalton Nierstheimer and Jordan Oldham’s trial has been rescheduled for Oct. 30. They will return to court on Oct. 23 for a pre-trial hearing, while Christopher Davison’s competency has been questioned and a status hearing was set for him on Sept. 28. Four other co-defendants — Tommie Snyder, Shawn Buck, Rodney Willis and Jose A. Munoz— previously took plea agreements.

The riot reportedly was sparked by changes to the phone system used by inmates that caused a jump in billing rates. On the night of Oct. 5, 2015, calls were abruptly stopped, and inmates became agitated by the fact that they would be paying for those disrupted calls.

[At LCCC, prison riot starts with a phone]

In E dorm, inmates covered cameras and uprooted a table bolted to the dorm’s concrete floor. The table was wedged against the door into the dorm, and a window into the dorm was broken. Bathroom partitions and bunk mattresses were ripped from their places and shoved against the broken window in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent corrections officers from flooding the dorm with pepper spray through the resulting hole.

No one was injured, but the cost to repair the damages was estimated at about $6,500.

Thomerson’s defense rested on the argument that while he was present in the dorm during the riot, his apparent participation was aimed more toward trying to defuse the situation and then protect himself from any potential tear-gassing by correctional officers.

Both the prosecution and the defense used surveillance video from inside the dorm and outside in the hall, but each interpreted Thomerson’s actions quite differently. There was no sound for the video, so it was left to the jury to decide which version of events it believed.

For the jury to find Thomerson guilty of rioting, it would have had to find that he was one of a group of six or more people engaged in violent or tumultuous conduct in a public place, that he knowingly engaged in that conduct, and as result, there was a risk of damage to property or physical injury to person.

Instead, the jurors found him guilty of the criminal mischief charge, which meant finding that he intentionally damaged property without having the right to do so or without having a reasonable belief that he had that right, and that he caused $1,000 or more in damage.

 


 

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 523-2246 or liz.kellar@juneauempire.com.

 


 

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