Acknowledging that Willie Ray Wisely has been the source of more than one headache among Orange County Jail officials, a federal judge Tuesday nonetheless awarded the convicted killer $5,050 in damages in his lawsuit against them.
"I can understand how Mr. Wisely has antagonized jail officials . . . chewing out young deputies . . . filing trivial complaints," said U.S. Dist. Judge William P. Gray. "But I'm troubled by the circumstances under which he has been living. . . . Many of his complaints were justified."
The judge's ruling, which included "modest attorney's fees" for Wisely's American Civil Liberties Union lawyers, resolves a two-year lawsuit the 34-year-old inmate filed against Sheriff Brad Gates and the county over jail conditions. Gray tried Wisely's case over three days in July.
Tuesday, the judge awarded Wisely $3,000 for being given less than eight hours of sleep a night before court appearances during his criminal trial. He also awarded him $500 for being forced to sit in a holding cell with no seats, $500 for inadequate time to eat meals, $500 for inadequate exercise time, $450 for being forced to sleep on the floor for three months at the peak of jail overcrowding and $100 for having his access to magazines interfered with.
While saying that Wisely had been a "pain in the ass" for jail officials, Gray questioned aloud whether deputies might be badgering him out of "vindictiveness" because of his many complaints. Wisely has filed complaints about jail conditions in federal court, as well Superior Court and with the state Board of Corrections.
Gray cited a letter Wisely had written to him in July that said deputies had increased their harassment since the trial on his lawsuit.
In testimony Tuesday before Gray, Sgt. J. D. Green, an 11-year veteran of the jail, reacted angrily to suggestions that Wisely might have been singled out for mistreatment.
Green told the judge from the witness stand that Wisely's case against jail officials was "a lot of bunk."
"That letter in its entirety is the biggest bunch of fabrication I have ever heard of," Green said. "It is appalling to me to see this brought before the court in such a bold lie."
Green also argued that jail deputies are so cognizant of Wisely's reputation for gaining attention with his complaints that they make a special effort to give him a wide berth.
In Jail 6 Years
Wisely has been in the Orange County Jail six years, longer than anyone else, according to inmate records. He was brought to the jail in 1981 from the Los Angeles County Jail, where he was being held on a different charge.
He was convicted of murder at a trial in which he served as his own attorney and was given a death sentence in 1982 for the slaying of his stepfather, Robert E. Bray, 61, of Huntington Beach.
The death sentence was later thrown out by the trial judge. After that decision was upheld on appeal, prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty again. Wisely is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 12 to life in prison without parole. On that same day, however, Wisely has said he will file his own motion for a new trial.
Dressed in a yellow jail jump suit, Wisely was congratulated after the hearing Tuesday by his wife, Gail M. Harrington. She faces charges of smuggling drugs to an inmate at the jail and is the target of legal action by county officials, who want to reduce her jail visiting privileges. Wisely has said jail officials are after her only to get back at him.
Ordinarily, court officials have strict rules about the public not talking to inmates in the courtroom. But Wisely was given time to hold an impromptu press conference after the ruling Tuesday. Wisely accused jail officials of "a small-town sheriff mentality."
"I'm glad we prevailed, but I'm going to keep on filing lawsuits until things finally improve at that jail," Wisely said.
ACLU Attorney Dick Herman said that while the damages awarded may not have been high, the court's ruling was a "building block" for improving conditions for jail inmates.
But James P. Slack, the county's attorney, called it only a "token victory" for Wisely.
"I'd say it was a victory for the county," Slack said. "Willie was hoping to walk away from this with big bucks."
Slack pointed out that the judge refused to award damages on eight points of contention dealing primarily with the handling of Wisely's mail and disciplinary action against him in the jail.
Slack asked the judge to declare the county the prevailing party, which would have meant the county would not have to pay the ACLU legal fees. But the judge declined.
"My crystal ball tells me that he got about half of what he wanted, so that's what he'll get in attorney fees--about half," Gray said.
The judge suggested to Wisely that he could help his own cause if he "got that chip off his shoulder."
But Gray also sharply defended Wisely's conduct in filing many jail complaints.
"I wonder what would be my conduct if I were in jail for six years," Gray said. "We can't expect such a person to have the same emotional balance and the same amount of patience after that experience."
The judge said he questioned Wisely's credibility as a witness but was convinced that there was at least some truth to his complaints.
Gray sternly cautioned jail officials them that if deputies expected to retaliate against Wisely for winning his lawsuit, "tell them to knock it off."