Punishment too harsh for NJ killer who threw feces, urine at prison guard, court says
TRENTON — A convicted killer spent too much time in solitary confinement after throwing a bucket of feces, urine and hot water at corrections officers, a state appeals court ruled Thursday in a decision the judges said they hoped would lead to inmates being treated more fairly.
Rigoberto Mejia, who's serving a 40-year prison sentence for murder, was punished after throwing the bucket at an officer outside of his cell on July 15, 2013. He tied a bed sheet to the door when officers tried to get into his cell.
Mejia, 57, had claimed he felt the officer "wanted to jump him." He was found guilty at an administrative hearing of two counts of throwing bodily fluids, tampering with or blocking any locked device and disruptive conduct.
A hearing officer imposed a penalty of 1,275 days of administrative segregation, 30 days of disciplinary detention, 90 days' loss of television, phone and radio privileges and 60 days of no recreation privileges.
The state corrections department upheld his conviction and penalties in two appeals, but the three-judge appellate panel said that it was "arbitrary and unreasonable."
The appeals court panel said that Mejia should not have spent more than a year in solitary and that he wasn't properly evaluated for mental health issues.
To justify the penalty, the department needed more documentation than saying his behavior was "disgusting", that it caused the corrections officers to seek medical attention and that Mejia should be held accountable, the panel said.
"We anticipate that the requirement for the consideration and articulation of sanctioning factors by hearing officers this opinion imposes will assure that sanctioning of state prisoners becomes more 'fair and equitable,' a stated goal of the" department of corrections, the judges wrote.
Mejia was sentenced to death for killing a co-worker, Balbino Garcia, over $750 at a Spring Lake hotel in December 1991. His sentence was converted to 40 years in prison in 1995.