According to the man’s lawyer, the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s office found that there was probable cause to charge one of the guards, a lieutenant, with aggravated assault and other charges, but no such charges have been brought to date. Also, the Prosecutor has denied my request for the video that captured the alleged beating.

In his 2020 lawsuit, Lourenzo Witt said that he was arrested at a local convenience store in Vineland on March 6, 2019 based on a warrant for a previous minor offense. Witt alleged that Vineland police officers Christian Morales and Kenneth Farmer transported him, while he was secured with both handcuffs and leg shackles, to the Cumberland County Jail.

The officers took Witt to a secure area of the jail to be processed by County correction lieutenant Michael Russell, sergeant Eugene Kelley and officers Sidney Giddons, Richard Cotto, Matthew Terres and Sherman Jones. Witt said that his back was placed against a concrete wall while his shackles and handcuffs were being removed. All eight officers surrounded him while dressed in protective gear and equipment.

Witt claimed that Russell told him “if you don’t comply you will be dealt with severely.” He said that even though he obeyed all the officers’ commands, Terres pepper-sprayed him in his eyes after which Russell and Cotto threw him facedown to the floor. He said that Russell threw his knee down into his back and yelled “What did I tell you?” while Witt screamed in pain. While he was on the floor, Witt alleged that Terres punched his face and body with a closed first at least four times while Russell “climbed off {Witt’s] back, positioned himself over [Witt’s] face, and stomped on [his] face with his combat style boot.”

One County official, however, claimed that Witt wasn’t as passive as he claimed. According to a July 1, 2020 article in the Daily Journal (“Vineland man claims jail beating, sues county and Vineland,” by Joseph P. Smith), County Attorney Theodore Baker, who watched the video recording of the alleged beating, said that “I will tell you that we believe that Mr. Witt was pushing to have somebody use force. That he was not shy about telling and challenging everybody, ‘Why don’t you hit me?'” Baker also was quoted as saying that officers did use force but declined to say “whether or not the actions that were taken were inappropriate.”

While his face was being held against the floor, Witt told Cotto “I can’t breathe” and Cotto responded “You can breathe,” according to the lawsuit. Russell allegedly told Witt that “I told you I wasn’t playing with you.”

Witt claimed that Morales, Farmer and Kelley stood by and watched without making any efforts to intervene. He claimed that he had previously made Internal Affairs complaints against Vineland Police and Cumberland County Correction officers but those complaints were never adequately investigated.

The $215,000 settlement, which was signed on October 22, 2021, resolved Witt’s claims against the County and the six individual correction officers. The lawsuit is still pending against Morales, Farmer and the City of Vineland.

The case is captioned Lourenzo Witt v. Cumberland County, et al, Federal Case No. 1:20-cv-14678 and Witt’s attorney was Richard M. Pescatore of Vineland. Case documents are on-line here.

According to a May 24, 2022 letter filed with the court by Witt’s attorney, “on June 24, 2019, the Chief law enforcement authority for the County of Cumberland (County Prosecutor) specifically and expressly concluded that there was probably [sic] cause for charging the co-Defendant Russell with multiple crimes,” including aggravated assault, falsifying records and obstructing investigation of a crime. The letter, as well as Witt’s lawsuit, claimed that the alleged beating was captured on the jail’s security cameras. In its response to my Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office said that no charges had been brought against Russell and that the video recording of the alleged beating was exempt from public disclosure.

07/13/2022 Update: In response to another OPRA request, Cumberland County disclosed that on June 8, 2020 Russell received a five-day suspension for having “failed to take Supervisory control of an incident and allowed it to escalate where staff involved and the inmate being restrained received injuries.” Russell was also found to have “showed poor judgment.”

Neither the disciplinary memo nor the Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action (PNDA) mentioned Witt’s name, but the date of the incident on latter document matches the date of Witt’s encounter with Russell.

It does not appear that Russell actually served the five-day suspension because the PNDA shows no beginning and end date of the suspension and says that the suspension “is on paper record keeping only.” Also, Russell’s time sheets do not show any periods for which disciplinary hours were deducted.

According to Cumberland County’s response to a separate OPRA request, Russell, who has been employed for more than 25 years, currently works as a “Correctional Police Lieutenant” at an annual salary of $107,568.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents Witt from disclosing the settlement’s terms to others. Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public’s right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.

None of Witt’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Rather, they are just that–allegations. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Russell or any of the other jail or police officials named in the lawsuit. All that is known for sure is that Cumberland County or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Witt $215,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to [email protected]