$19.3M jury award on behalf of assaulted prisoner came from showing, not telling
Imagine being locked up with a dangerous predator while surrounded by people who cannot be bothered to care about your humanity, your health or your safety—much less be motivated to intervene and help.
That’s the situation our client, Jane Doe, faced in 2016 and 2017 while incarcerated at the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois.
Working with the Uptown People’s Law Center, a Chicago legal clinic, in 2018, we brought a federal lawsuit on Doe’s behalf, alleging she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her correctional counselor. Additionally, we contended, this happened with a former warden’s and prison investigator’s knowledge. In September, after these claims were proved in federal court, a jury awarded our client $19.3 million.
When our client arrived at Logan, the father of her then-6-year-old daughter sought to strip her of all contact with their child, citing incarceration as a basis to withhold communication. She fought back: After a monthslong legal battle, she obtained a court order that safeguarded her right to regular phone calls with her daughter. But to access those phone calls, she was required to coordinate them through her assigned Women and Family Services counselor. Enter Richard Macleod.
As a counselor for Doe and other incarcerated women, Macleod was the gatekeeper for phone calls between mothers and their children. In that role, he had unfettered access and was able to summon our client and other women to any location at the facility, at any time with no oversight or surveillance. He also had the authority to discipline inmates, including by placing them in segregation, if they defied his orders.
Within weeks of being designated as Doe’s counselor, Macleod began to sexually assault her, we argued at trial, and he did not contest.
Among other things, Macleod coerced Doe to have nonconsensual sexual intercourse with him and to perform nonconsensual oral sex. Macleod also made sexual remarks and masturbated in front of our client while she was on the phone with her daughter. He threatened her with punishment if she reported him.
MacLeod took a default judgment. As a result, he legally acknowledged that the assaults detailed in our complaint were true and accurate. His assaults on Doe and other female inmates were admitted in court as stipulated facts with regard to him.
In December 2016, Doe’s roommate reported the ongoing sexual abuse to the lead investigator at Logan—Todd Sexton—who in turn shared the report with the then-warden, Margaret Burke. During trial, Sexton testified that he found the roommate’s reports of Doe’s sexual abuse credible.
But instead of taking commonsense steps to protect our client, as the law and constitution requires, Sexton and Burke used her as bait, as they admitted on the witness stand. Specifically, they failed to restrict Macleod’s access to Doe or other female prisoners and instead contended that they attempted on three occasions to conduct “surveillance” in a misguided effort to catch Macleod in the act of abusing our client. When this dangerous plan predictably failed, Doe was sexually assaulted again.
She sued Macleod, Sexton and Burke in their individual capacities under Section 1983 of the federal civil rights statute for violation of her Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.
Among other things, we argued that Sexton and Burke were well aware of their legal obligation to protect Doe but deliberately chose not to take necessary actions to ensure her safety. We highlighted the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a federal law that prohibits sexual misconduct in correctional settings.
Likewise, Illinois law prohibits sexual relationships between staff and prisoners. And we contended that the defendants knew of these laws and related policies but disregarded them in Doe’s case, in violation of her constitutional rights.
Burke and Sexton refused to admit responsibility and fought the case at every stage. (On Oct 25, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office filed a notice of appeal on behalf of Sexton and Burke.) Discovery consisted of more than 30 depositions, and we were forced to file dozens of motions compelling information and defeating the defense’s various attempts to dismiss our client’s claims, including at summary judgment.
After five years of work, the case finally went to trial in September in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois. A trial team of seven women and one man presented Doe’s claims to a Springfield jury.
To obtain recovery from Macleod, Sexton and Burke for their violations of Doe’s right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, the trial team presented an unsparing look at the experiences of the women incarcerated at Logan. We knew that if we were to win, it would be because of the brave women who were willing to raise their voices and report the abuse they witnessed or suffered firsthand in that facility despite being conditioned to believe that nothing would be done.
We did not shy away from the ugly facts. Rather, we systematically gave the jury information about what federal law requires when investigating sexual assault; why Congress enshrined those requirements in federal law; and how Sexton and Burke knowingly and deliberately violated the requirements, enabling our client’s continued abuse.
In addition to Doe’s story, substantiated by her roommate, we presented testimony that a female staff member asserted that she too was sexually harassed by Macleod. And a second Jane Doe witness testified that she was repeatedly raped by Macleod.
The jury also heard from women who tried to change the system from within, including the Illinois State Police special agent who testified that she investigated and substantiated Macleod’s abuse of our client and other women, and the assistant warden who strived for change under the leadership of Burke and Sexton. Brenda Smith and Ann Burgess—experts who have devoted their lives to addressing the systemic issue of prison rape and its resulting harm—also presented specialized knowledge that gave the jurors the foundation they needed to understand the gravity of defendants’ wrongs and the trauma inflicted on Doe.
In the courtroom, we paid close attention to the clock and revised our trial examinations in real time to be responsive to the story that was unfolding. We also pursued a “show, not tell” strategy, relying wherever possible on defendants’ own words, actions and training to prove the facility had a dangerous and depraved environment, and the defendants working within that culture purposefully made choices that enabled and facilitated our client’s continued abuse.
After a five-day trial, the jury returned a multimillion-dollar verdict in favor of our client. Each of the defendants was deemed responsible, and each must pay both compensatory and punitive damages.
We believe that the jury’s verdict sends a loud and clear message to individuals working within our prison systems: The rights of prisoners matter. Every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and every person deserves to be protected from abuse.
That said, there is still so much work to be done. None of the defendants in our case has been criminally charged or even administratively disciplined for their role in Doe’s abuse. Today, Margaret Burke works for a nonprofit organization that says it teaches other wardens how to properly care for female prisoners. Todd Sexton was promoted, and he now oversees and trains other investigators for the Illinois Department of Corrections. And Richard Macleod has never been criminally charged—even though we presented testimony that the Illinois State Police confirmed his assaults of our client and other prisoners at Logan back in 2017. Instead, Macleod remained employed by the Illinois Department of Corrections until 2021, the Chicago Tribune reported, and briefly went to work for the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services.
While we hope our case shed much-needed light on the dangers faced by incarcerated people, we know others must continue to bring their skills, talent and drive to address these issues if we want to see real change.
This story was originally published in the February-March 2024 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Prison Protection: Lawyers say their federal jury verdict win came from showing, not telling.”
Britt Cramer is a partner with Kirkland & Ellis, and Christina Sharkey is of counsel with Quinn Emanuel. Both are trial lawyers based in Chicago.
This column reflects the opinions of the authors and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.
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