NEW YORK — Former New York Gov. George Pataki cannot be held accountable for violating the rights of violent sex offenders who were involuntarily committed to mental institutions event though they had completed lengthy prison terms, a jury found Monday.
The jurors reached the verdict after hearing about three weeks of testimony at civil trial in federal court in Manhattan. It included that of sex offenders who sued Pataki and other state officials for unspecified damages, alleging they conspired in the mid-2000s to abuse their authority and rob them of their constitutional rights.
The jury found one official, former state health commissioner Sharon Carpinello, liable in the case. But it only awarded the plaintiffs $1 each in damages.
Afterward, Carpinello expressed relief, saying the minuscule damages showed the jury believed her testimony that the plaintiffs "were very much in need of treatment."
Pataki, who also took the witness stand, wasn't in the courtroom to hear the verdict.
In statement, Pataki attorney Abbe Lowell said the three-term former governor "sought to ensure the safety of all New Yorkers and make sure that they were well-served by their government. He achieved this by keeping the law and the constitution priorities all the time. The jury verdict confirmed this."
Plaintiff attorney Ameer Benno said outside court that he still believed that "the evidence supported a finding of liability on the part of Gov. Pataki."
The case stemmed from Pataki's decision in 2005 to have heath and prison officials evaluate the worst sex offenders for possible civil commitment once released from prison. The practice was halted in 2006 after a state court found that several men who were committed should have been entitled to hearings before it happened. Some remained in psychiatric institutions for years afterward.
Six of the sex offenders sued Pataki and other officials in 2008, claiming the officials had abused their authority by denying them their freedom.
The Sexually Violent Predator initiative was a sham attempt to bypass the Constitution, plaintiffs' attorney Reza Rezvani said in closing arguments Monday. "You know that the Constitution applies to everybody. ... No one is saying don't lock up the bad guys. But you do it right and you're fair."
Lowell, the attorney for Pataki, told the jury that the most shocking part of the case was "what the plaintiffs did, not what the defendants did."
At trial, jurors heard testimony of plaintiffs who served lengthy prison sentences for sex assaults on minors and crimes. One, Louis Massei, testified that once he was committed to psychiatric care, he and the other convicts were never given any treatment.
"We were separated from the other patients," Massei said. "We were treated like `the experiment.'"
Pataki testified he authorized evaluations of sex offenders before they were freed as a way to protect the public, not to rob them of liberty. Defense lawyers noted that of the nearly 800 inmates examined, fewer than 200 were committed to mental institutions.
The lawsuit had alleged that Pataki and officials with the Office of Mental Health and Department of Correctional Services purposely deprived them of due process. But the former governor claimed he "didn't know what law was being used or what particular part of the law was being used" to implement the program, nor did he pay close attention to how it was carried out.
"I personally never had any contact with DOCS or OMH, so no, I didn't direct them directly," he said.