Judge has conflict in Nebraska riot case, declares mistrial

November 29, 2018

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Testimony in a trial for a former Nebraska inmate’s lawsuit against the state over a 2015 prison riot was cut short Wednesday, when a judge declared a mistrial after recusing himself.

Lancaster County Judge John Colborn recused himself following two days of testimony, determining his potential conflict of interest in John Wizinsky’s case. Wizinsky had taken the stand Monday in his civil lawsuit over a riot three years ago at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution that left two other inmates dead and more than $2 million in damage.

Wizinsky, who sued the state upon his release in 2016, testified that he feared for his life as inmates took over a housing unit from prison guards, started fires and attacked other inmates. He also alleges he suffered from nightmares, panic attacks and increased post-traumatic stress symptoms from witnessing an inmate nearly beaten to death during the May 10, 2015, riot.

Wizinsky’s lawsuit claims that the state was negligent in failing to provide reasonable protection for inmates.

Colborn said he didn’t realize his conflict of interest until he heard testimony regarding the Tecumseh prison’s overcrowding and staffing problems.

Wizinsky’s attorney, Joy Shiffermiller, claimed that overcrowding at the state prison and a staffing shortage were factors that led to prison guards abandoning areas of the prison during the riot, leaving inmates to fend for themselves.

State Corrections Director Scott Frakes also testified Tuesday about the prison’s staffing issues.

Colborn said he has knowledge and personal involvement in justice reform for prison overcrowding. Colborn served on the state’s Justice Reinvestment Committee and attended governor’s advisory meetings on the subject.

A new judge will be appointed to preside over the trial, but there’s no set timeline.

Wizinksy’s attorney Shiffermiller expressed disappointment that her client’s trial will have to start over.

Wizinsky’s trial was the first civil case to be heard in connection to the 2015 riot, which was followed by another riot at the Tecumseh facility in 2017 that also left two inmates dead.

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