SCHENECTADY -- A state prison inmate serving a life sentence for first-degree murder is charging that he was assaulted by Schenectady County corrections officers during a brief stay at the county jail in January.
James Spells, 42, who is currently being held at the Auburn correctional facility, filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Albany last Thursday asserting that four named corrections officers and others unidentified violated his civil rights on Jan. 10 when he was pepper-sprayed and then assaulted in his cell.
The lawsuit alleges that Spells was assaulted "for no legitimate penological purpose."
County officials have a different account of events, and charged Spells immediately after the incident with three counts of second-degree assault, claiming Spells assaulted three corrections officers. All required treatment afterward at Ellis Hospital.
In court papers, Spells is seeking compensation to be determined by a jury as well as reimbursement of legal costs. The lawsuit names Sgt. Kristopher Van Hoeven and Corrections Officers James Puglisi, Jason Butterfield and Nicholas J. Smith, all individually and in their official capacities.
Spells is serving a sentence of life without parole after being convicted of first-degree murder and first-degree robbery for the Dec. 1, 1996 fatal shooting of Maurice "Bubba" Hines inside 823 Lincoln Ave., Schenectady, during what prosecutors said was a robbery for marijuana and cash. He was 20 years old at the time of that shooting. He was convicted of murder and robbery by a Schenectady County Court jury in 1998, though he testified that he wasn't in Schenectady the night of the shooting.
The lawsuit charges that on Jan. 10, Spells was transported from the Downstate Correctional Facility to the Schenectady County Jail for a hearing on appealing his conviction that was going to be heard in state Supreme Court. The nature of his challenge to the 20-year-old conviction couldn't be determined on Tuesday.
After he arrived in Schenectady, Spells said he asked to make a legal phone call and Van Hoeven refused to let him.
The lawsuit alleges Van Hoeven became angry, Spells gave a "purely verbal response," and that led to Van Hoeven using pepper-spray on Spells. He claims other officers arrived after Spells "in self-defense" tried to knock the pepper spray out of the sergeant's hand. The officers then handcuffed and assaulted him, the lawsuit claims.
Spells was taken to Ellis Hospital for treatment of cuts and bruises on his face and body, according to the lawsuit.
The felony assault charges were filed "in an effort to cover up the assault," the lawsuit alleges. Spells has denied assaulting the officers. The charges are still pending.
A state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision officer's memo attached to the lawsuit says that when the officer came to Schenectady to pick up Spells on Jan. 12, "he had bruising + scrapes/abrasions to his face at this time."
Leo Glickman of New York City, the attorney representing Spells, did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Schenectady County Attorney Chris Gardner, whose office oversees the county's defense in such cases, said a thorough investigation was conducted at the time, and the county jail administration is confident that its officers will be vindicated and that nothing improper occurred.
District Court Magistrate Judge Therese Wiley Dancks has been assigned to hold an initial conference in the case in September.