JDI IN THE NEWS - 2004

Betty Brink, Another Carswell Conviction: A Former Guard is Found Guilty of Sexually Abusing a Prisoner, Fort Worth Weekly, February 18, 2004.

On Feb. 10, former guard Michael Lawrence Miller became the seventh employee of the federal prison camp for women at Carswell to be convicted of sexual abuse of a prisoner in the last seven years.

A jury in U.S. District Judge John McBryde's court that morning convicted Miller of raping Marilyn Shirley, a prisoner in his custody, in March 2000. The jury of 10 women and two men found him guilty on five counts: aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse of a ward, abusive sexual contact, abusive sexual contact with a ward, and assault. His are the most serious charges to date to be brought against Carswell's sexual predators. According to the U. S. Attorney's office, he is facing a sentence of 11 years to life in prison and a fine as high as $1.25 million.

Prison rights advocates such as Boston law professor Wendy Murphy, who teaches about sexual violence at the New England School of Law, hailed the verdict as a giant step forward on behalf of prison rape victims. "Indeed, the law should now send a message [through sentencing] that an attack by someone in a position of power against a defenseless person such as Ms. Shirley ... will result in extreme sanctions," she said.

Shirley has already won a $4 million civil judgment against Miller. But her push for justice hasn't stopped with him. Her attorneys have also filed a $10 million civil rights lawsuit against the federal Bureau of Prisons, on behalf of Shirley and her family, accusing the agency of failing to protect her from sexual violence while she was in custody.

In the suit, Shirley, 48, alleges that Carswell staff and the bureau were aware of the "high incidence of sexual misconduct [at the prison] by its officers and employees" and should have never allowed a lone male guard to be assigned to Shirley's area of the prison during the 12 a.m. to 6 a.m. shift when the rape took place.

When Fort Worth Weekly first reported in June 2003 on the sexual abuse charges that had been brought against Carswell employees, the reform group Stop Prison Rape called the numbers "alarmingly high" for a single prison. Since 1997, a chaplain, a physician, a counselor, two guards, a cook, and now Miller have been convicted of sexual crimes against female inmates at the prison. All except Miller claimed that the women prisoners with whom they had sex were willing partners. Those six were charged with "sexual abuse of a ward," and received sentences ranging from 14 months in prison to probation. The doctor's medical license was revoked. Another doctor, who was never criminally charged, was fired after being caught in his office in a sexual act with an inmate patient. None was charged with rape, even though in the eyes of the law any sexual contact between a prisoner and his or her jailer is considered coerced. "There is no such thing as consensual sex in a prison," said a defense attorney here who handled two of the previous Carswell cases.

Federal prisons spokesman Dan Dunne praised the guilty verdict brought against Miller. The bureau, he said, cooperated fully with investigators and prosecutors in pursuing the case. "We have a zero tolerance policy against such [sexual misconduct] behavior in our institutions," he said. "In the rare circumstances when a staff member gets involved in such a situation, we take action." Asked about the large number of sex convictions at Carswell, Dunn said, "One would be too many." Still, he said, the bureau has taken no special look at Carswell. "We are continually looking at the procedures for all our institutions, to prevent sexual assaults," he said.

The 35-year-old Miller, who lives in North Richland Hills, is married with three children. He was a 16-year employee of the Bureau of Prisons with no prior record when he was indicted last year and promptly fired. Since then, he has been working as a cable installer. His sentencing is scheduled for May. According to his attorney, Miller declined to be interviewed for this story.

For Shirley, the verdict was the culmination of a process that began the morning after the assault in March 2000, when she wrapped her semen-stained sweatpants in a plastic bag and taped the bag to the underside of her locker where it stayed, undetected, for the next six months. On the day when she was released from her 18-month sentence for a methamphetamine sale, she reported the rape to the warden and turned over her sweatpants and a pubic hair to the FBI. ("Iron Bars Do Not a Safe Place Make," Fort Worth Weekly, Jan. 30, 2003.) Since that time, she said, "bringing Miller to justice has consumed my life."

But the FBI almost derailed the possibility of a conviction by its sloppy handling of the evidence. For reasons that the agency has never explained to Shirley or the Weekly, the hair was lost and the testing for DNA in the semen wasn't done for nearly three years. At the trial, Amrita Lal, an expert from the New Orleans forensic lab to which the pants were eventually sent for testing, testified that the semen samples were badly degraded by the passage of time and from being sealed for so long in plastic. They were also from a donor who had had a vasectomy, which Miller and millions of other men have had; the medical procedure also makes it difficult to find usable DNA. Lal said that only three of the 10 DNA markers she found in the semen matched those from saliva taken from Miller's cheek.

Miller's attorney, James Smith, argued that the DNA samples were not conclusive enough to send a man to prison for life.

The jury apparently sided with prosecutor Fred Schattman, who pointed out the undisputed fact there was semen on Shirley's sweatpants that had to have come from a male inside the prison. Miller had the opportunity, he said, and at least some of the matching DNA.

Unlike most rape victims, Shirley has always allowed her name to be used in published reports of her accusations against Miller. "This was not an isolated crime [in the prison system]," she said. "If I speak out in my own name, it may give other women the courage to come forward and tell their stories of sexual abuse in prison." She became a poster child for prison rape victims when she went to Washington last year to lobby on behalf of a significant prison rape reform bill that was later passed by Congress.

"The only way to stop this crime," she said, "is to expose the rapists and the sexual predators in our prisons, and bring them to justice. I hope the Miller trial is just the beginning."