Jury Finds Former Lackawanna County Prison Guard McHale Not Guilty Of Sexually Abusing Inmate
In a stinging defeat for the state attorney general’s office, a former Lackawanna County prison guard accused of sexually abusing an inmate was found not guilty of all charges Thursday.
George T. McHale buried his head in his hands and wept as the jury foreman read the verdict on each of the three counts he faced. About a dozen of his supporters gasped, hugged and cried.
“Thank you. Thank you,” McHale mouthed to the jury, which heard evidence over three days before Lackawanna County Judge Julia Munley. The panel deliberated for about two hours before reaching its decision.
McHale’s accuser, a 49-year-old Jessup woman, closed her eyes and sighed heavily as the panel entered the courtroom. She showed no reaction as the verdicts were read.
McHale, 51, of 513 Florin St., Scranton, was on trial on one count of institutional sexual assault and two counts of indecent assault. He is among seven former guards arrested on Feb. 14, 2018, based on a statewide grand jury report. McHale’s case was the first to go to trial.
The arrests garnered extensive media coverage. At a press conference the day after the arrests, State Attorney General Josh Shapiro condemned the “outrageous criminal conduct by those in positions of power.”
On Thursday, Shapiro was condemned by McHale’s attorney, Joseph Toczydlowski, who contends McHale should never have been charged in the first place.
“A year ago … they took employees out of the jail in handcuffs, but they never stopped to consider the credibility of the individuals that were making these allegations,” Toczydlowski said in an interview outside the federal courthouse in Scranton, which was specially designated to host the trial.
In a prepared statement, Shapiro’s spokesman, Joe Grace, said the office is disappointed with the verdict, but it will not lessen the determination to prosecute the remaining guards.
“Our commitment to investigating and prosecuting sexual assault wherever we find it is unwavering,” Grace said.
The case against McHale relied almost exclusively on the testimony of his accuser, who claimed McHale forced her to masturbate him while she was housed in the prison’s restricted housing unit between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve in 2009.
The woman is also one of several women prosecutors say were victims of another of the charged guards, John Shnipes Jr. The Times-Tribune is not identifying the woman because the case against Shnipes remains pending.
During his closing argument in McHale’s trial, Toczydlowski focused on the women’s credibility and lack of corroborating evidence. Prison records showed McHale was working within the time frame she said the assault occurred, but log books showed he never entered the restricted housing unit.
“There are no other witnesses to offer even the tiniest bit of corroboration,” he said.
Toczydlowski also aggressively attacked the woman’s credibility, repeatedly referring to her as a “nine-time convicted liar” who was motivated to make up the story because she wanted to collect on a federal lawsuit she and three other women filed in 2016.
During the trial, the woman testified she did not file suit until after she was questioned by Lackawanna County detectives, who sought her out after other women identified her as an abuse victim. She and one other woman were dismissed from the suit in 2017 because their claims fell outside the civil statute of limitations.
In her closing argument to the jury, Deputy Attorney General Rebecca Elo acknowledged the woman had a long history of theft-related convictions. That’s precisely the type person a sexual predator would target, she said.
“I submit to you that does not make her a liar. It makes her an imperfect person … It makes her a perfect victim,” said Elo, who co-prosecuted the case with Simquita Bridges, acting assistant chief deputy attorney general. “These crimes are committed against vulnerable people who no one will believe.”
The woman left the courthouse following the trial without speaking to the media. In a text message later to a reporter, she stood by her allegations and said she felt she was being “blamed for my own victimization and being punished for coming forward.”
“It was such a humiliating experience to recount privately, let alone publicly, what happened to me during my incarceration,” she said. “You ask yourself, why would I ever in a million years put myself through such a public shaming, knowing from the very beginning that I would be crucified and scoffed at for my prior egregious behaviors?”
Speaking outside the courthouse, McHale, who testified in his own defense Wednesday, again professed his innocence.
“My life’s been turned upside down since I got arrested,” he said. “This never happened.”
Asked if he would seek to get his job back or if he is considering filing a civil suit over his arrest, he declined comment.
“Let’s take it step by step, day by day,” he said. “I just want to go home and enjoy my life.”
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Trials for 6 former guards pending
The trials for six of the remaining guards charged with sexually abusing inmates remain pending.
The next defendant to face trial is Jeffrey T. Staff, 43, 24 Briarwood Way, Clarks Summit, who is charged with one count of institutional sexual assault. His trial is scheduled to begin March 4 before Judge Trish Corbett.
The other defendants are:
James J. Walsh, 52, 209 Mosswood Road, Roaring Brook Twp., who is charged with four counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.
Paul J. Voglino, 46, 4 Rear Orchard St., Carbondale, who is charged with one count of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.
Mark A. Johnson, 54, 2213 Golden Ave., Scranton, who is charged with two counts each of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and institutional sexual assault and one count each of indecent assault and harassment.
George R. Efthimiou, 51, 1121 Loomis Ave., Taylor, who is charged with two counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.
John Shnipes Jr., 43, 115 Simpson St., Archbald, who is charged with six counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, four counts of aggravated indecent assault, two counts of institutional sexual assault and two counts of harassment.