After a three-day trial, a federal jury convicted former Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) shift commander Willie Burks, 42, of failing to stop an officer under his command from assaulting an inmate at ADOC’s Elmore Correctional Facility.
The evidence at trial established that when Burks watched calmly as his subordinate, Sergeant Ulysses Oliver, took a handcuffed and compliant inmate out of an observation room, threw him onto the ground, and then punched, kicked, and beat him with a baton. Rather than intervene, as Burks had been trained to do, Burks stood silent until the end of the beating, at which time he commented, “That’s fair.” When Oliver turned himself in for using excessive force, triggering an investigation, Burks instructed Oliver to write in his report that Burks had told him to stop, even though that was not true, in order to cover up his failure to intervene.
“The Constitution requires officers to take reasonable steps to stop excessive force when they know of it and have the power to stop it,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Defendant Burks defied the Constitution, and ignored his oath as a law enforcement officer, when he casually watched a handcuffed and defenseless inmate in his custody being assaulted by an officer under his command. We stand ready to hold officers who commit federal civil rights violations inside of jails and prisons accountable for their misconduct.”
“Correctional officers have an incredibly difficult and important job,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Sandra J. Stewart for the Middle District of Alabama. “Although a vast majority of them serve with honor, cases like this damage public trust and make the job they do more difficult. When officers abandon their oath to protect and serve, and turn a blind eye to criminal conduct, they must be held accountable. This office is committed to prosecute anyone who violates the law.”
“When a law enforcement officer accepts his or her oath of office, they also accept the higher standard they must adhere to,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge James Jewell of the FBI’s Mobile Division. “The abuse of prisoners should not, and will not, be tolerated by the men and women of the FBI and their work in this case was exemplary. The cooperation of the multiple agencies involved in this case, and most specifically the Alabama Department of Corrections, is a testament to their dedication to the administration of justice.”
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms Burks’ behavior and blatant violation of his sworn oath to serve,” said Chief Law Enforcement Officer Arnaldo Mercado for the Alabama Department of Corrections’ Law Enforcement Services Division. “We extend our thanks to the DOJ for its assistance in bringing forth justice in this case.”
Burks is the fourth correctional officer to be convicted in federal court in connection with this assault. Former ADOC Sergeant Ulysses Oliver previously pleaded guilty for assaulting the inmate, and former Corrections Officers Briana Mosley and Leon Williams, who were also present during the assault, previously pleaded guilty for failing to intervene.
Burks will be sentenced in November. He faces a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
This case was investigated by the FBI’s Mobile Division and ADOC’s Law Enforcement Services Division. It was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Counts of the Middle District of Alabama, and Trial Attorneys Katherine DeVar and David Reese of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
Separately, the Department of Justice is prosecuting a civil case against Alabama and ADOC that alleges a pattern or practice of excessive force by ADOC security staff in violation of the United States Constitution. See United States v. Alabama, No. 2:20-cv-01971-RDP (N.D. Ala.).