CRIME

AP Exclusive: Iowa drops inmate sanctions in 'unusual' case

Ending a case that's been called a remarkable injustice, prison officials have dropped all sanctions imposed on an Iowa inmate for his role in an alleged 2009 gang rape that he says never happened.

The surprise decision by the Iowa Department of Corrections is a victory for Joe Byrd, who had denied involvement in the alleged attack through 7 ½ years of hearings and appeals. After having long insisted that Byrd was guilty despite the doubts of a prison judge and investigator, department officials will now expunge the discipline from Byrd's record as if the case never happened.

The decision will shave Byrd's sentence by restoring one year of earned time that he had lost and remove the classification of Byrd as a sex offender, which would have required him to complete treatment before becoming parole-eligible.

In exchange, Byrd agreed to drop an appeal in which he was challenging the rules governing inmate disciplinary hearings, including the denial of lawyers, the limited ability to call witnesses, the use of secret evidence, and a low standard of proof that allows judges to find guilt even if only "some evidence" supports it. Byrd also agreed not to sue the state for damages.

Byrd's attorney Philip Mears, who has represented inmates for 35 years, said the compromise ends what is perhaps "the most incredibly remarkable and unusual" prison disciplinary case he's seen.

"To this day, neither Mr. Byrd nor myself has seen what the evidence was against him," Mears said. "We do know that the way it was handled by the department was pretty bad."

Retired prison judge William Soupene has called the case one of the biggest apparent miscarriages of justice during his 42-year career in which he handled 100,000 cases, saying it bothered him years later.

Department officials had no immediate comment Tuesday. The settlement doesn't appear to affect four other inmates punished in the alleged attack.

The case dates to 2009, when a Newton Correctional Facility inmate claimed that he had been raped months earlier in Byrd's cell by at least five men for two to three hours. Prison officials launched disciplinary proceedings against five alleged perpetrators. Byrd had been transferred to Anamosa State Penitentiary, where Soupene was the administrative law judge and assigned to hold his hearing.

After reviewing reams of confidential evidence, Soupene testified in 2013 that he was stunned because he didn't believe any of it supported the inmate's claim that a rape occurred. A prison investigator who looked into the case for Soupene found that the alleged victim wasn't credible. Before he reported the rape but shortly after it allegedly occurred, the inmate said on a recorded phone call with an acquaintance that he felt safe at Newton but claimed he had been raped by inmates at another prison. The Iowa State Penitentiary had also investigated the inmate's earlier claim that employees had raped him there and found it wasn't true.

Some also doubted that a rape could last for two hours or longer because officers do rounds every 30 minutes. Soupene warned department officials he planned to dismiss the case unless they provided more credible evidence.

They responded by removing Soupene from the hearing. They assigned the case instead to the judge at Newton, who had already found the other four inmates guilty. Byrd was found guilty and sanctioned with 365 days of disciplinary detention and 365 days of lost earned time — the harshest penalties available. Byrd, who is serving a 25-year sentence for a 2007 robbery conviction, was later classified as a sex offender.

A federal judge took the highly unusual step in 2014 of ruling that the department's removal of Soupene was unconstitutional, ordering the prison to have a new hearing.

A different judge found Byrd guilty again last year during a proceeding in which he was not allowed to have an attorney, call Newton correctional officers to testify, or see the evidence against him. Byrd wasn't even allowed to see a statement submitted by one of his own witnesses, the investigator who found the alleged victim unreliable.

Byrd, 45, has a tentative 2029 release date. He continues to appeal his underlying conviction, in which he was found guilty of robbing a state drug informant at gunpoint at his Des Moines apartment during a botched sting operation.

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Follow Ryan J. Foley at —https://twitter.com/rjfoley