Liberto Loses Case

In jail sexual-assault trial, jury finds for county, former sheriff.

| March 13, 2008

After almost a day and a half of deliberations, an eight-person jury found that Shelby County did not violate the constitutional rights of a Midtown man.

In late 2000, Joseph Liberto alleged he was sexually assaulted during a 36-hour incarceration at the Shelby County Jail on Poplar. He first told his story, in which he claimed four African-American males sodomized him with a metal spoon, to the Flyer in January 2001.

At the time, problems at the jail were widely known. In 1996, as part of a case in which an inmate was gang-raped, federal judge Jerome Turner ruled that conditions at the jail were unconstitutional. He also ordered that violent and nonviolent offenders be separated.

During Liberto's civil trial, attorney Fred Jones Jr. defended Shelby County and former sheriff A.C. Gilless, now deceased. He argued that they were not retrying the 1996 case and hammered at inconsistent statements in Liberto's testimony.

Liberto once said he was choked with a cloth during the assault, but in court he said he wasn't. He was unclear how many men assaulted him and what exactly their roles were in the alleged attack. He was also unclear on what exactly a female guard said as she walked past his cell during the alleged attack.

"Possibly parts of his story are true," Jones told the jury, "but you have to judge this case on the whole thing."

Liberto attorney Timothy Dudley addressed the inconsistencies this way: "If you go through something traumatic like that, you're not going to remember everything," he said.

Dudley also pointed out that the physical evidence could not be manipulated. During the trial, jurors saw pictures taken at the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center that showed injury to Liberto's thumb, knees, and rectal area.

"If he was not sexually assaulted, where did these injuries come from?" asked Dudley. "If they had put [only] nonviolent offenders like Joe in Pod D, do you think Joe Liberto would have been attacked?"

Liberto said he has no plans to appeal.

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