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Supreme Court sides with victims raped by prison guard

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The New Mexico Supreme Court handed down a ruling Monday that could prevent a rapist prison guard and the private prison corporation he worked for from reducing their payments to three rape victims on the grounds the women were partially at fault.

Former guard Anthony Townes is serving 16 years in prison after pleading guilty in 2009 to raping three women inmates in a privately run prison in Albuquerque. The women then sued him and Corrections Corporation of America, which runs 71 facilities around the nation, including three in New Mexico.

In the civil trial, Townes and CCA’s attorneys argued at least one of the women consented to sex with Townes, even helping to conceal it.

A CCA attorney refused to comment Monday.

The women said he would take them from their work stations and from their cells at all times of day and night to areas of the prison not covered by security cameras. Their attorney, Paul Kennedy, was not available to comment.

In 2012, a federal civil jury awarded the women about $3 million in punitive damages and $325,000 in compensatory damages to be paid in various amounts by Townes and the CCA.

But the jury in the civil trial also said the women were partially responsible for their own rapes under a legal concept called comparative negligence.

The concept refers to a party’s level of fault. For example, a person injured in a fight in a bar sues the bar for operating an unsafe business. A court could find the bar 10 percent responsible for the injuries and find the person 90 percent responsible for their own injuries.

Victim Heather Spurlock Jackson was found to be 54 percent negligent, and victim Sophia Carrasco was found to be 20 percent negligent. A third victim was awarded damages in a different way.

The money they were awarded was reduced accordingly.

The women and their attorneys appealed the award, raising issues including how liable CCA should be.

In 2014, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver asked the New Mexico Supreme Court to help them clarify how New Mexico law handles such a “sensitive policy issue” as reducing a payment because of comparative negligence in a prison rape case. They asked the justices to consider only the compensatory damages.

The New Mexico justices issued their ruling Monday.

In it, they said that in just this one case, state law doesn’t even need to address fault or negligence percentages because CCA is indeed liable for Townes’ actions and thus is responsible for all the compensatory damages awarded to the women.

The opinion now goes back to the federal appeals court in Denver.